Lerners to buy Nationals from MLB

Lerners to buy Nationals from MLB

After a yearlong search and decision-making process, Major League Baseball has sold the Washington Nationals to a group headed by Theodore and Mark Lerner.

The news was given to Ted Lerner by Commissioner Bud Selig in a telephone call on Wednesday, and by that evening the 80-year-old was ready to go.

"It's some kind of day," he said. "You can't imagine how proud and humble I feel standing here as owner of the Nationals. For a kid from the District [of Columbia], this is a very exciting day. It's a lifetime dream. It is a dream of mine and a dream for my family. It wasn't long ago that I paid 25 cents to sit in the bleachers at Griffith Stadium."

That was two Washington Senators baseball franchises ago.

Selig formally announced that MLB has begun the process of divesting itself of a franchise it has owned and operated since Feb. 15, 2002, during an afternoon conference call. In doing so, he praised the eight groups that seriously vied for the franchise and said that choosing one was "one of the most difficult decisions I've ever had to make."

"I am very excited about the Lerner family and what they will bring to the Washington Nationals, the community and Major League Baseball," he said. "From the very beginning of the process, they have been committed to the goals of stable yet innovative ownership, diversity within the ownership group, and solid baseball management. Throughout the long application period, they have not varied from those goals and have scrupulously followed our procedures."

The sale price is $450 million, and approval of the owners should be perfunctory at their next quarterly meetings, scheduled for May 17-18 in New York City. Considering the time it will take for the signing of final papers, the Lerners will probably take over the club shortly thereafter.

Selig said he has grown accustomed to 30-0 votes on these type of franchise transfer issues and expects the same in this instance.

"Let's say I don't expect any problem," he said.

Two local groups headed by Lerner and Fred Malek, a former minority partner of the Texas Rangers, were considered to be the finalists, with Jeff Smulyan, once the owner of the Seattle Mariners, having fallen well into third place.

The Lerners, though, were considered to be the frontrunners for at least a week, particularly after they were paired with Stan Kasten, the former president of the Atlanta Braves. Kasten will serve as the team's president.

At the same time in Atlanta, Kasten was also the president of the NBA Hawks, the NHL Thrashers and oversaw the construction of Philips Arena, which opened in 1999.

Kasten said on Wednesday night that building the Nationals into a powerhouse will be a formative challenge.

"I was looking for something bigger and better and this is it," Kasten said. "If you are a guy that does what I do, the opportunity to build a stadium from scratch and a team from scratch in the most important city in the world, it doesn't get better than that. This is the top of the mountain in professional sports. I am proud to be here."

Lerner is the head of a Washington-based real estate empire that spans the Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs. As one of the main shareholders of Lincoln Holdings LLC, the Lerners are already ingrained in the local professional sports culture. That entity owns the NHL's Capitals and WNBA's Mystics, plus a minority share in the NBA Wizards and the Verizon Center, the downtown arena where all three teams play.

The Lerners join the likes of John Moores of the Padres, Frank and Jamie McCourt of the Dodgers, Carl Pohlad of the Twins and Fred Wilpon of the Mets as the newest of baseball's family-run ownerships.

"In the end, I determined that family ownership and major investment by a central person has served baseball well in the past and will continue to serve the game well in the future," Selig said. "Accountability is critical in a situation where teams must compete on the field but be partners off the field and in the community. I am confident the Lerners will be accountable to their fans and to baseball."

The baseball team the Lerners are buying was born in 1969 as the Montreal Expos, and after a lengthy relocation process, moved to the District in time for the 2005 season, during which the newly christened Nationals drew 2.7 million to 45-year-old RFK Stadium. MLB briefly considered the Expos to be a candidate for contraction after the 2001 season, but decided instead to purchase the franchise from Jeffrey Loria and his partners for $120 million.

The decision regarding which group to sell the team to was an agonizing one for Selig and comes a day before the groundbreaking of a hard-fought, $611 million ballpark and redevelopment project near the waterfront just south of the U.S. Capitol.

MLB president and COO Bob DuPuy and Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf spent almost six months negotiating a 30-year lease for the Nationals to play in the new ballpark. That process was fraught with problems and the lease was nearly voted down by the D.C. City Council.

By contract, that stadium is supposed to be available in time for the 2008 season.

Despite some acrimony in recent days among local Washington politicos about which group should be sold the team, Selig and DuPuy attempted to calm jangling nerves on Wednesday with very positive results.

"I'm pleased that Major League Baseball has selected an owner for the Nats," said Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who publicly supported the Malek group during the course of the process. "The fans, the District government and most of all the team need the stability of a single owner. I'm also pleased with the selection of Ted Lerner as the new owner of the team. Ted Lerner was born and raised in the District, attended high school and college here, and grew up watching the Washington Senators.

"I spoke with Ted Lerner today after he was awarded the team and I firmly believe he will make an excellent owner and a good partner. I look forward to working closely with the Lerner family."

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