With nothing to lose, Kasten helps Nationals try to win

ON BASEBALL

March 20, 2007|By DAN CONNOLLY

VIERA, Fla. — VIERA, Fla.-- --Stan Kasten's job description as Washington Nationals president is open-ended.

So here's a glimpse at what he does: basically, anything he thinks of. Everywhere he can. While interacting with anyone he meets.

Such as conducting a media interview as he shuffles around Space Coast Stadium shaking hands and making quips during one of his brief trips to spring training.

This is Kasten's first spring with the Nationals - he officially became president when real estate mogul Theodore N. Lerner and his family gained ownership from Major League Baseball in July - and he'd like to be down here more often. But there's too much business to accomplish back in Washington.

So he's in and out of Florida, always on the move. Saying hello to security guards. Checking out a new automated ticketing system. Busting the chops of assistant general manager Bob Boone, who is wearing the rare tie and dress shirt combo.

"Is it picture day for the senior class?" Kasten asks sarcastically.

The Nationals are his world, and no aspect is too small for his scrutiny.

Such as heading into the club store to see which merchandise is on the racks. Kasten grabs a red button-down Nationals shirt and shakes his head. He likes the look, but it says "spring training 2007." It's dated. Won't be a big seller, he predicts. Should just say, "spring training."

A disconcerting detail for this man of minutiae.

"Oh, well," he says, waving a hand.

And he moves on again.

"Whatever Stan does, 24 hours in a day is not enough time," says Don Sutton, Mid-Atlantic Sports Network's new Nationals analyst, who has known Kasten for decades. "He doesn't get into anything that doesn't get his attention and focus. He doesn't accept less than the best effort from anybody. And that starts with himself."

He established his sporting legacy years ago. A lawyer by trade, Kasten, 55, was the first simultaneous president of three pro franchises: the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, NHL's Atlanta Thrashers and baseball's Atlanta Braves.

In 1979, at the age of 27, he became the youngest general manager in NBA history. He took over the Braves in 1986 and orchestrated a turnaround that made the team a perennial division winner and one-time World Series champion. He oversaw the construction of a state-of-the-art arena and stadium in Atlanta.

Then he retired in 2003 with a twinkle in his eye.

"When I stepped out, I said, `Look, I might do this again if I found something that was an opportunity to build something bigger and better than anything I have ever done.' That's the only thing that interested me," Kasten said. "I set the bar reasonably high, given how fortunate I have been. But this really is that kind of challenge."

The Nationals might be the biggest challenge in baseball. They have finished last in the National League East in each of their two years in Washington, and their predecessor, the Montreal Expos, finished atop their division only twice, both in strike-shortened years, 1981 and 1994. They never made it to a World Series in 36 seasons.

The obstacles continue in Washington. The Nationals play in obsolete Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, and their farm system was ranked 30th of 30 organizations by Baseball America. And, heading into this spring, they had just one starter, John Patterson, set for the 2007 rotation.

Yet Kasten seems undeterred.

"To do a team that was at the bottom, a last-place team with real infrastructure needs and to do it all in the glare of the most intense spotlight of any city, maybe, in the world, that's exciting," Kasten says.

To be fair, there is some hope. The Nationals will move into a new stadium along the Anacostia River in 2008. The ownership group, which includes Kasten as an investor, pledges to provide the needed financial support.

There are some good young players, such as third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, shortstop Felipe Lopez and closer Chad Cordero, already in the majors. There's an energetic new manager in Manny Acta, 38.

And they have Kasten, which means instant credibility, for now.

"What he is going to do is he is going to build a championship organization, and he's in the foundation process right now," says Orioles pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who was part of Kasten's run with the Braves. "He'll get it done."

Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner, whose father is the managing principal owner, says: "Stan brings it all. He is obviously the consummate sports executive. Nobody will ever be able to touch the record he achieved in Atlanta, and our family is very lucky to have him."

Really, Kasten has little to lose in this endeavor - besides the tainting of his sparkling resume, something he counters by saying, "I spend zero amount of time thinking about legacy."

The son of Holocaust survivors, the fearless Kasten also doesn't back down from a fight, be it with the media or other doubters.

Maybe it's experience. Or supreme confidence. But he says he's positive he'll succeed in Washington.

That's why he wrote "31" in Nationals red on the board above the desk in his office earlier this year. Between the Hawks (18 times) and the Braves (12), Kasten's teams have made the playoffs 30 times.

"Thirty times I have been to the postseason. Nothing in my life is more important than No. 31," he says. "That is the single thing that is driving me."

Until then, he'll be everywhere, observing everything, attempting to build a champion one detail, one relationship at a time.

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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