Nationals sale gets owners' approval

Nationals sale gets owners' approval

NEW YORK -- The sale of the Washington Nationals to a group headed by Ted Lerner and his son Mark Lerner was approved unanimously at Thursday morning's quarterly owners' meeting, ending Major League Baseball's four-year role in owning and operating the franchise, which relocated from Montreal prior to the 2005 season.

And thus, a new era in the 38-year odyssey of the Montreal/Washington franchise began, and Stan Kasten, the team's new president and an ownership partner, wasted little time in marketing the franchise.

Promising a first-class team in a first-class city that will ultimately play in a first-class ballpark, Kasten said that fans should expect an improved environment at 45-year-old RFK Stadium, where the Nationals are scheduled to play until the end of the 2007 season.

The Grand Re-Opening Night is scheduled for RFK against the Chicago Cubs on July 21, the team's first home game after the July 10-12 All-Star Game break.

"Buy your tickets now," Kasten said with a laugh. "We're optimistic about our future. We like our prospects. That's why we're here. It's going to be great for us, it's going to be great for Washington, but this is also going to be a flagship for Major League Baseball across the country and internationally. We think we're going to be a very important franchise."

The team will remain in MLB's hands until the anticipated $450 million sale closes sometime between June 15 and the All-Star break. But the new owners are already involved.

Introduced by Commissioner Bud Selig at Thursday's press conference, they were out in force: Kasten, Ted Lerner, Mark Lerner, son-in-laws Ed Cohen and Bob Tanenbaum, and Jarvis Stewart, a K Street lobbyist who represented nine minority partners: seven African-Americans and two Hispanics.

Eight groups, including the one headed by Kasten that merged with the Lerners, originally vied for the team.

"It was a tribute to baseball and a tribute to Washington," Selig said. "I can't think of an instance where the sale of a club had so many potential buyers."

The new owners will meet members of the Nationals front-office staff next week and they said they are already evaluating the franchise, from the field to the hot dogs sold at the concession stands.

Ted Lerner, an 80-year-old real estate magnate, who grew up as a fan of the Senators-turned-Minnesota Twins, said that he had one goal for the Nationals:

"We want to have a winning team, playing in a great ballpark in a city that belongs to all Americans."

To that end, fans will probably have to wait until that new yard opens in 2008 and begins the flow of an estimated $200 million in revenue annually into the club's coffers. Kasten, who once presided over an Atlanta Braves team that has won 14 division titles in a row, said his new franchise will spend money on players, but it will not do so foolishly.

"Job one for us is getting into a position to win as soon as possible," he said. "As soon as we're in a position to win -- and I don't know whether it will be next year or the year after -- we're going to go for it. This man [Ted Lerner] wants to win a world championship and I want to help him do it. But we think the way to do it is to start with player development."

The team the Lerners are purchasing was born in 1969 as the Montreal Expos. The team relocated to the District last year, where the newly christened Nationals drew 2.7 million during their inaugural home season. Though RFK attendance is down about 20 percent so far this year, the new group said one of its top initial projects is to make RFK a better place to go, as well as try to improve the design of a new $711 million waterfront ballpark.

"We've had a crash course in the last two weeks," Mark Lerner said. "We still have a long way to go. We've started to make some suggestions and will continue to do that over the next month or so. We have a lot of catching up to do."

Selig formally announced that MLB had begun the process of divesting itself of the franchise to the Lerners on May 3. That decision came more than two months after baseball had concluded an agreement with the D.C. City Council for the team to play 30 years in the new ballpark where ground was broken on the banks of the Anacostia River just two weeks ago.

MLB purchased the then Expos in 2002 from Jeffrey Loria and his partners for $120 million, thus beginning an arduous process of relocating and then selling the team.

Selig said he was relieved and pleased that the process was nearly over.

"As the Commissioner of this sport, I was very, very sensitive about buying a club," he said. "I was very nervous about it. I understood all the ramifications on a daily basis. I understood all of the potential conflicts. But the people we put in charge really did a marvelous job under very difficult conditions. Would I want to do this again? No! But it was an emergency. We didn't really have much of a choice."

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