Decision due on Nats owner

Lerner group likely to be picked by MLB

D.C. Council's legislation prods Comcast


WASHINGTON -- Major League Baseball neared a decision yesterday on a new owner for the Washington Nationals, as the D.C. Council tried to force Comcast to carry the team's games.

Signs pointed to a group led by developer Theodore Lerner and his family as the winner of the bidding to become team owner.

An announcement is expected in the next few days.

Lerner is a Bethesda developer. Former Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten is also a member of the group.

The group was not the first choice of Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams. A few D.C. Council members, who have been openly critical of the group, tried unsuccessfully yesterday to get the council on record as opposing the Lerner-Kasten bid.

Meanwhile, the council passed emergency legislation yesterday to try to compel Comcast to begin carrying Nationals games for its area cable customers.

The bill says Comcast must begin broadcasting the games or face the possibility of losing the city-approved agreement that allows it to operate here.

In a statement, Comcast said that the bill is not enforceable because local government efforts to require specific programming "are clearly impermissible under federal law."

The mayor declined to endorse the council's bill, which would go into effect in 10 days, or sooner if he signs it first.

The team's broadcast rights are held by the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, owned by Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Comcast says MASN is asking for too much money to carry the games.

"The mayor strongly agrees with any and all efforts to get more Nationals games on TV," Williams spokesman Vincent Morris said yesterday. "[The council's action] may not be the best way to accomplish that, but we ... hope that a resolution can be achieved soon."

Comcast said yesterday that it would continue to search for a "workable solution."

"We appreciate the attempt by the council to help find a viable compromise, and the recognition of most members of the council that pressure needs to be applied on Peter Angelos in order to resolve this dispute," David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast Corp., said in a statement.

The Nationals have been owned by MLB since arriving in Washington before last season.

Reached last night, MLB spokesman Rich Levin did not dispute reports that the Lerner-Kasten group was about to be named. Levin added that commissioner Bud Selig had not completed the decision-making process, and said no announcement had been scheduled "as of this moment."

An official with baseball ties - but not in the commissioner's office - said all signals pointed to Lerner.

There has been widespread speculation that baseball is poised to make an announcement by tomorrow, when a groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for a new stadium on the Anacostia River waterfront.

Several council members tried unsuccessfully yesterday to put the council on record against the Lerner-Kasten bid. The group has been criticized by council members Marion Barry and Vincent B. Orange Sr. for not having what they consider to be meaningful representation by minorities.

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