Kasten is building foundation for Nats

July 17, 2006|By JEFF BARKER | JEFF BARKER,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- It's a familiar sight in Washington: The president of a new administration takes over and promises change.

Stan Kasten isn't the leader of the free world, but he is about to be president of the Washington Nationals baseball club. And he's looking a lot like a political candidate as he strides purposefully around RFK Stadium on a recent game night shaking hands, signing autographs and asking fans what needs to change.

The answer, he knows, is quite a bit. When Major League Baseball signs the paperwork turning the club over to its new owners - it is expected to happen by the end of the month - Kasten already will be deep into creating a team bearing little resemblance to the one he's inheriting.

While the current team has a patchwork feel, Kasten says the Nationals of the future will rely heavily on a from-the-bottom-up system of player development. "It'll be a mix, but the foundation will be home-grown. That's the key," he says.

While Kasten won't talk about personnel, a clue to his approach lies in the vision he has for the team's new stadium, scheduled to open in 2008. It is a vision that shows a loyalty to pitching and fundamentals.

"You do build your club to your field," says Kasten, 54, a New Jersey-raised lawyer who served as president of three teams simultaneously when he worked for Ted Turner's Atlanta-based sports empire. After helping the Braves to an impressive string of division titles, he stepped down from the Braves, NBA's Hawks and NHL's Thrashers in 2003 and awaited his next challenge.

"I do not like the last decade's flurry of bandbox parks," Kasten says. "I don't think that's the best kind of baseball. I always have felt Atlanta [Turner Field] was the fairest of all the new parks - not a pitcher's park, not a hitter's park. We don't want to play pinball."

Nine-year-old Turner Field, which Kasten helped design for the Braves, has generous dimensions. Kasten says he and the Nationals will have flexibility in laying out the field for the new park on the Anacostia River waterfront, and he is expected to draw on his Turner Field experience.

For now, though, Kasten is waiting for baseball to complete the sale of the team to a group headed by real estate developer Theodore N. Lerner and his son, Mark. Kasten holds a stake in the team as an investor.

It's a transition time for Kasten, a perfectionist who says "I take losses hard" and jokes that "my outlet is I either yell at a writer, or I yell at an agent."

It's a period in which Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden are exploring trades - an eight-player deal with the Cincinnati Reds was completed Thursday - and evaluating which players and officials they want to retain from a team with a middling record.

The club recently endured some awkward moments when Frank Robinson, the Hall of Famer and former Oriole who has managed the Expos/Nationals since 2002, wasn't informed about the team's hiring of Davey Johnson until he heard about it from a reporter.

Johnson, also a former Orioles player and manager, was hired as a consultant. His appointment was delicate because it came at a time when Robinson doesn't yet know whether he will be retained.

"We understand there's been a lack of communication because I'm not here yet. Now I'm going to be here," Kasten says. "And the way the relationship has always been between me and the GM and the manager is that [the] three of us will talk to each other every day. There won't be any confusion or questions. We won't ever be sending each other messages through the media."

During this interim period, Kasten has taken to striding around the stands and concourses of RFK, the 45-year-old warhorse of a stadium that is the team's temporary home until the new facility is built. "A couple of fans have adopted me and I go check in with them every night," he says.

On one such walking tour a young boy presents Kasten with a baseball to sign. A woman tells him a speaker above her seat is too loud. A third fan simply wants to shake his hand.

Kasten takes it all in. Part of his job, he says, is to help create an environment that will cater not only to hardcore fans "but to the 99 percent who come to the game and don't want to just sit in their seat for nine innings."

The club is planning to show off a series of improvements to RFK as part of its "Grand Re-Opening" this weekend during a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs. Additional food items are being offered, and stadium workers are undergoing new customer service training. Beginning July 25th, 2,000 seats are being discounted for the rest of the year - some to $3 and $5.

But Kasten can be forgiven if he is looking ahead to putting his stamp on the new stadium.

"When I ask you to close your eyes and imagine Fenway Park, what do you look at? The Green Monster. When I ask you to think of Camden Yards, you see the warehouse," Kasten says.

It's Kasten's job to help fashion the new facility's defining feature.

"That's my tableau that I have to paint and animate," he says.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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