With issues unresolved, Nats in bind

Lease, ownership questions leave team spinning wheels


It's a scenario unparalleled in Major League Baseball history.

Almost four years ago, commissioner Bud Selig and 28 other franchise owners purchased the Montreal Expos for $120 million. Selig said the move was a short-term fix to keep the Expos active as baseball looked for a new owner and new home for the struggling club.

But three spring trainings, three pennant drives and three offseasons later, the franchise still lacks a guiding light. It has a new home, a new name, new fans and a new sense of optimism.

And yet, devotees are enduring another offseason of uncertainty, one in which the manager and general manager can't gauge their job security and in which it's unclear how liberally the club can spend on free agents.

"It's really sad to watch this happen," said ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian, who lives in Gaithersburg. "The Nationals are really being put at a disadvantage by this delay."

The promised date for a new owner has continued to drift: from January, to the All-Star break, to the end of the season, to the owners' meetings earlier this month, to Selig's newest projection, spring training 2006.

"The only thing that's certain is that these things will always take much longer than anybody projects," said Neil deMause, co-author of Field of Schemes, a book on stadium financing.

That's because Selig and fellow owners are infinitely patient in trying to squeeze the last few public dollars out of any deal, said deMause, adding he'd be shocked if the commissioner picks an owner before the terms of the lease are clear.

"Major League Baseball isn't concerned with the D.C. fans or players or anybody else's future plans for the future," he said. "They're concerned about getting the most money for the team."

This opera of stagnation is unfolding along two tracks. On one, a pack of rich and prominent would-be owners is jockeying for Selig's favor. On the other, the city and baseball officials are wrangling over the lease agreement for a planned $535 million ballpark on Washington's Anacostia waterfront.

Selig has said he won't sell the team until the lease is settled, and D.C. Council members are rumbling about scuttling the whole stadium deal if baseball won't cover expected cost overruns.

The ones forced to sit and wait as these great forces decide the future? Nationals fans.

"With no owner, a shoestring budget and contentious council hearings over the stadium, it's feeling like the winter of 2004 all over again," Colin Mills, president of the Nats Fan Club, said in an e-mail. "It's like we're living a bad remake of Groundhog Day."

The potential on-field consequences is apparent, despite a surprising start to last season that put the Nationals in first place well into the summer.

General manager Jim Bowden, whose contract ends in April, has interviewed for the Red Sox's general manager job.

Team officials have told coaches and other staff members to be on the lookout for other jobs because they aren't guaranteed to remain in place under a new owner.

Manager Frank Robinson has complained that the limbo is unfair to him and his coaches.

Last week, Esteban Loaiza, one of three starters who carried the Nationals through much of the season, signed with the Oakland Athletics. Washington wasn't able to put up much of a fight. No one knows if the Nationals can make an honest stab at a desirable replacement such as A.J. Burnett, whom they have pursued. Bowden doesn't even know who's setting his budget for next season.

"It makes it more challenging for everybody when there's no clear direction," said former Orioles and Expos executive Jim Beattie. "It makes it hard to move quickly on players, and that only gets tougher the later in the offseason it goes."

Bowden was able to sign a cadre of players last offseason, but, even then, he bid on parts most other clubs didn't want. Kurkjian said the general manager's innate aggressiveness is the only reason the Nationals are even able to stay in competition for free agents.

"He can be as persuasive as he wants talking to a free agent," said Kurkjian, a former Sun baseball reporter. "But in the end, he's going to need approval from MLB, and that's a lot harder to get than approval from your own owner."

The contenders for the vacant owner spot are a scrum of rich, powerful and connected men. Observers consider the leading candidates to be Indianapolis media baron Jeff Smulyan, Washington developer Theodore Lerner and a group of D.C. businessmen led by venture capitalist Frederic V. Malek and investor Jeffrey D. Zients.

Smulyan spent an unpleasant three years owning the Seattle Mariners, but he has more money now and maintains close ties to Selig and influential White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Malek is tight with the Bush White House (he managed George H.W. Bush's re-election campaign in 1992) and has assembled a group that includes such famous names as Colin Powell and Vernon Jordan. He has used an array of local connections to gain backing from Mayor Anthony Williams.

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