Lerner group gets Nats

Sun Reporter

Major League Baseball yesterday named a group headed by Washington native Theodore N. Lerner, a reclusive shopping mall and office complex developer, as owner of the Washington Nationals, but Lerner isn't quite getting the benefit of a fresh start.

Lerner's group, which includes his son, Mark, and former Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten, was neither the first choice of Mayor Anthony A. Williams nor of much of the D.C. Council. A few council members have criticized the group for not communicating with top city officials during the bidding process and not having enough racial diversity. Another council member, Phil Mendelson, said in an interview yesterday that the city should have insisted on a greater role in choosing the owner.

For the Lerners, all of the inherited issues mean they must play some catch-up before the game has even begun. Their $450 million bid is expected to be formally approved by baseball owners at their meeting in two weeks.

In the meantime, the Lerners began a reconciliation process with the city yesterday, even before meeting the media at the downtown Fairmont hotel.

Besides inviting reporters to their introductory event, the Lerners also invited two of their loudest critics - Marion Barry, the former District of Columbia mayor, and Vincent Orange Sr. The two council members had two days earlier criticized the Lerner group's racial makeup, saying minorities were not meaningfully represented.

Yesterday, the Lerners - seated on a dais in a hotel auditorium - made a point of introducing Barry and Orange when they walked into the room. Then, all of the dozen members of the Lerner team vigorously applauded. After the event was over, the council members were invited to pose for pictures with the Lerners and other group members, who include sports broadcaster James Brown and former U.S. transportation secretary Rodney E. Slater.

It was all an indication that the new owners understand they have work to do to make themselves welcome in a city that has had an uneven relationship with baseball, not only recently but historically as well.

Family first Commissioner Bud Selig selected the Lerners from among eight bidding groups that he had whittled down to three finalists. Selig said the Lerners were ultimately aided because their family ownership proposal felt comfortable to a sport that long ago grew accustomed to the O'Malleys owning the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Galbreaths owning the Pittsburgh Pirates and - more currently - the Wilpons owning the New York Mets.

"The family model meant a lot to me," Selig said in a conference call yesterday. "There's continuity, there is stability. And that was impressive."

Major League Baseball bought the former Montreal Expos for $120 million and has owned the team since the Nationals began play in Washington before last season.

Selig said he was confident that the Lerners and Kasten could bridge the divide that has formed between baseball and city officials over stadium financing and other issues.

Kasten, who will be the Nationals' president, is best known for running the Braves for 17 years. He also has been president of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers.

Kasten said yesterday that he will have the same "deep-pocketed" ownership in Washington as he did in Atlanta. He said his formula will be the same: to upgrade player development, training facilities and scouting.

"If we do our jobs right, we're going to become the next big sports phenomenon," he said.

In Washington, Kasten will face a unique challenge. He must cope with the residue of a historically strained relationship between the city and baseball. The city and MLB feuded for months about who would pay for a $611 million stadium in southeast Washington, with the city finally agreeing to absorb most of the cost. Meanwhile, many older residents still harbor a distrust of baseball for pulling teams out of the city in 1960 and 1971 - moves that accelerated the sport's precipitous popularity decline among area youths from a generation ago.

"They've got some work to do - any group would," said Dwight Cropp, a public policy professor at George Washington University and the husband of Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp.

At 66, Dwight Cropp is old enough to remember losing two franchises - both named the Washington Senators - and says he's never managed to muster the same enthusiasm for the sport since then. "I think it's going to take some real effort to plan how they're going to promote baseball in D.C. and make it a viable kind of activity that the whole community will be proud of," he said.

Washington lawyer Martin Klepper, who has experience in financing sports stadiums, said he's confident the Lerners will adopt the correct team approach to fixing old problems. "You don't develop facilities like Tysons Corner [mall] unless you have the ability to develop excellent relationships with the legislators in that community," Klepper said.

The Lerners said they understood Washington's history because they are natives. Prominent on a Lerner fact sheet distributed yesterday was this promise: "We will NEVER take the team away from Washington."

'Lifetime dream' Theodore Lerner, 80, told the media yesterday that he used to peddle magazines door-to-door to earn enough money to sit in the bleachers at old Griffith Stadium to watch the Senators play. "It is a lifetime dream," he said of owning a team.

Lerner is known as a recluse, a trait he doesn't deny. But the group said yesterday that its low profile during the bidding process resulted from a baseball order to keep quiet until an owner was chosen.

In other developments at the news conference:

• The Lerners said it was too early to speculate on the fates of current team executives Tony Tavares and Jim Bowden, or of manager Frank Robinson.

Said Bowden yesterday: "That's a decision they will make. What I have confidence in is that this family is going to make the right decision for this franchise long-term. And, to me, that's what should be important. "

• Kasten expressed confidence that Nationals television broadcasts would become available to more fans. The broadcast rights are held by a regional sports network controlled by Orioles owner Peter Angelos, whom Kasten called "a very good friend of mine for whom I have nothing but respect."

jeff.barker@baltsun.comSun reporter Dan Connolly contributed to this article.

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