Nationals need an owner now

It was a miracle that the Washington Nationals finished .500 in 2005 given all that was working against them, including a $50 million payroll, a substandard ballpark and little help from ownership, which happens to be Major League Baseball. At this rate, it will be a bigger miracle if the Nationals finish .500 next year, thanks to MLB's indecisiveness.

The Nationals still don't have an owner. That decision was supposed to come in July, then September, then by the beginning of the World Series. And every day the Nationals go without an owner is another day closer to next season, and another day lost in a critical juncture for every team -- the free-agent signing period.

The Nationals need to be working on improving their team for 2006, but for now, they don't know who will be their owner, general manager, manager or coaches, nor what their payroll will be. Their GM, Jim Bowden, has publicly interviewed for the Red Sox GM job, as is his right, and their manager, Frank Robinson, who deserves far better treatment than this, is angry, as he should be. It is ridiculous that he and Nationals are in this precarious situation.

MLB representatives, led by chief negotiator and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, were in Washington Tuesday to negotiate a new stadium lease with the city's government, which, in MLB's defense, is not the easiest group with which to work. Still, it's time to get a lease deal and choose an owner. The Nationals need both to begin marketing, which was virtually nonexistent last season; to get on TV, which didn't happen often enough in 2005; and to upgrade the talent on a team that went 31-50 after a 50-31 start.

The issues are indeed complicated, and as always the biggest issue is money -- roughly $1 billion when the sale price of the team ($450 million) is combined with the estimated cost ($535 million) for the new ballpark. The D.C. government wants additional financial protection from MLB against, among other things, a work stoppage or a terrorist attack.

MLB wants to clear as much money as possible because most every penny it makes goes into the pockets of the 30 owners. But isn't $450 million enough, especially since the franchise may not be worth half that much? The money issue isn't so complex that the process should be dragged out this long. It is helpful, if not necessary, for ownership to have a lease in place for a new ballpark at the time of the sale. But it seems it would be easier for the new owners, not MLB, to work out the lease with local government because the team and the city will be partners -- and must develop trust -- on many levels for many years.

The picking of the potential owners seems less complicated. There are eight good groups, but only two -- maybe three -- with a realistic chance of being chosen. There is the Washington Baseball Club, a group consisting mostly of local businessmen led by Fred Malek, the chairman of Thayer Capital Partners, a D.C.-based merchant bank. The group, which also includes Colin Powell, has been working the longest and hardest to buy the team, and has ties to the community, something that is very important to MLB.

There is the Lerner group, led by Ted Lerner, a real estate developer, and a highly respected businessman and negotiator. He, too, is a local guy. And Lerner represents something MLB values greatly: One man who will write all the checks, not a group of investors, such as the Washington Baseball Club.

Jeff Smulyan, a communications magnate who once owned the Seattle Mariners, appears to be running third. He is a good friend of Reinsdorf, which is significant. But Smulyan is not local; he operates out of Indianapolis, but has done a tremendous amount of work recently aligning himself with some of the money men in Washington.

A fourth group, led by developer Franklin Haney of Tennessee, "can't be discounted," said a source close to the negotiations, "because he and Malek are the only ones who have said they will pay for any cost overruns for the new stadium. Building costs have gone way up lately. If the D.C. government was making the call, it would be Malek or Haney because they say they'll pay."

With all due respect to Smulyan and Haney, the new owners must be local. Washington's baseball history is not a pretty one; two owners, Calvin Griffith and Bob Short, moved the team -- Griffith to Minneapolis in 1961, and Short to Arlington, Texas, in 1972. The Nationals should be owned by the Washington Baseball Club, and if not that group, by the Lerners.

These are good people who want to buy the team. One investor in the Washington Baseball Club wants a part of the club so he can bring baseball back to his hometown for the sake of his parents, who are in their late 70s, and would be able to see a potential new ballpark in southeast Washington from where their house is. Can there be any better reason than for pride, for community and for family?

"It's getting close," said a source close to the negotiations.

Close isn't good enough. A decision must be made. Finish the deal, and give the Nationals a fighting chance for 2006.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.