Selig to meet with prospective buyers

Selig to meet with prospective buyers

HOUSTON -- Nearly eight months into the process of selling the Washington Nationals, Commissioner Bud Selig is expected to interview members of the key groups vying to purchase the team that was relocated from Montreal this year in the next few weeks, Major League Baseball's second-ranking official said on Sunday.

"The Commissioner is going to interview the groups in the next week to 10 days that he hasn't spoken to yet," said Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and chief operating officer, who was at Minute Maid Park for Game 4 of the National League Championship Series between the Astros and Cardinals. "And then we hope to move forward on the decision-making process."

MLB, which currently owns and operates the franchise, had hoped to have the sale of the team, which has a price of approximately $450 million, completed by the end of the season. But complications with the Washington City Council regarding the signing of a lease for the team to play at a new ballpark in the nation's capital have delayed Selig's decision.

DuPuy met with Selig last month to lay out the ownership choices after the relocation committee conducting the sale spent months gathering information and accepting bids for the club, which finished 81-81 for the season and wasn't eliminated from the National League Wild Card race until late September.

But MLB is intent on not completing the sale so the lease can be conveyed along with the franchise. The new stadium is not expected to be ready until the 2008 season at the earliest. Meanwhile, the team will continue to play at aging RFK Stadium, where it drew 2.5 million fans in 2005.

"I'd like to have a vote on it at the November [owners'] meetings," DuPuy said. "There's no reason why we can't announce who we intend to sell the team to in conjunction with signing the lease. But it's very important that we sign a lease contemplated by the stadium agreement. We continue to negotiate and hope that this will quickly be resolved."

The odds against a November vote may be long, since Selig usually places an embargo on all MLB news and transactions until the end of the World Series, which could last as late as Oct. 30. The final quarterly owners' meetings of the year are slated for Nov. 16-17 in Selig's hometown of Milwaukee.

The D.C. City Council remains in session until just before the Christmas holidays. In fact, last year at its final meeting, that group reversed an earlier negative decision and approved a term sheet for the building of a $450 million stadium on the banks of the Anacostia River just south of the Capitol Building, thus paving the way for the Expos to move in time for the 2005 season.

Eight groups were still vying for the team as late as last month, but the two with the strongest ties to the District are considered to be among the top candidates. Those groups are headed by Fred Malek, a former minority partner in the Texas Rangers, and Mark Lerner, a minority owner in the company that holds the NHL's Washington Capitals. Another group in the running is headed by former Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan, who has limited D.C. ties.

Each group has met at least twice this year with select members of the relocation committee, but some of the key bidders have not met directly with Selig.

MLB purchased the Expos from Jeffery Loria and his group of minority partners for $120 million on Feb. 15, 2003, and it has just completed its fourth season operating the team. This was the first year that the franchise has made money, reportedly in the $25 million range. In each of the club's three previous seasons -- all played in Montreal -- running the club cost MLB $100 million.

Tony Tavares remains as the team president, Jim Bowden as the general manager and Frank Robinson as the manager.

Bowden was recently granted permission to interview with the Diamondbacks for their open general manager's position, DuPuy said, confirming an report that was published on Saturday.

But the later it gets in the process of selling the team, the tougher it's going to be for new owners to change the hierarchy -- not to mention sell tickets and make marketing plans for the 2006 season.

"Tony Tavares is very competent," DuPuy said. "He's doing planning for next year. Jim Bowden has done a wonderful job, and so has Frank. We're very confident we're going to turn over a very healthy and vital franchise to a new owner."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.