Thursday, September 29, 2005

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday he would be willing to break tradition and announce a decision about ownership of the Washington Nationals during postseason play.

Historically, baseball has avoided making any sort of news that would take the focus off postseason games. But after yesterday’s Senate hearing on tougher drug testing in sports, Selig said that wouldn’t delay an announcement. Division Series play begins Tuesday.

“It is not precluded from being decided and announced during the playoffs,” Selig said. “I have that flexibility to make that decision, and I understand why it should be made and why it should be made quickly.

“We’re trying to move as fast as possible. We’ve got eight great groups, and they are still submitting lots of information. When we know, it will get announced quickly.”

Baseball has maintained that a decision on ownership will not be finalized and announced until a lease for the new $535 million ballpark with the District is completed. Negotiations between city officials and Major League Baseball have intensified over the last few weeks, and yesterday Bob DuPuy, baseball’s chief operating officer, said there had been “some progress” in those talks.

“I had a conversation with [city councilman] Jack Evans the other day,” DuPuy said. “There is no reason why we can’t get it done. There is an issue of timing and whether it has to be approved by the council or signed off by the sports commission, but in terms of the substantive issues, we are getting close.”

Baseball’s dealings with the city council have been stormy in the past. Now there are tensions over speculation baseball will bypass a number of local bidders for the franchise and select former Seattle Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan, a communications mogul based in Indianapolis. D.C. Council Chairwoman Linda W. Cropp wrote a letter to Selig last week calling for the new owners to be “vested in the District.”

Yesterday, Selig said he was sensitive to the desires for local ownership.

“Local is certainly one of the strong factors,” he said.

In addition to Smulyan, there are seven other groups bidding to buy the Nationals, the former Montreal Expos franchise purchased for $120 million in 2002 by Major League Baseball from former owner Jeffrey Loria and now carrying a $450 million sales price tag: businessman William Collins and Albert Lord, chairman of Sallie Mae; the Washington Baseball Club, led by former Texas Rangers partner Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients; former Washington Capitals part-owner Jonathan Ledecky; Maryland real estate businessmen Mark and Theodore Lerner; Tennessee developer Franklin Haney; former Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten; and Yusef Jackson (the son of Rev. Jesse Jackson) and Ronald Burkle.

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