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D.C. & Capitol Hill Politics Intertwines Major League Baseballl Ownership

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For those of you who do not care about politics and for those of you who do not care about Major League Baseball (MLB), the two are about to be permanently joined at the hip due to the location of the Washington Nationals Baseball club and Major League’s Baseball hunt for its first owner of the team, which is expected to be announced over the next week or so.

MLB Commissioner, Bud Selig, has been promising for over a year now to sell the Washington Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, to an owner who agrees to pay MLB $450 million for the club. The Nationals have been collectively owned by the 29 other MLB teams since February 15, 2002, when the Expos’ then- owner, Jeffrey Loria, sold the team for $120 million. Then after three seasons, the club was relocated to Washington, D.C. and renamed the Washington Nationals in 2005.

But the history of negotiations goes back to Bud Selig’s placating Baltimore Orioles owner, Peter Angelos, who refused to budge on allowing another Major League franchise to exist within a 100-mile radius of Baltimore. The details of what Selig whispered into Angelos’ ear to allow the relocation to go forward have never been confirmed, but all Nationals’ fans need do is to try to find a game broadcast on TV. Mostly, they will be unsuccessful, as Angelos, who controls the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), and Comcast Broadcasting are still quibbling about the TV airing rights of Nationals’ games. Only a handful of Nationals’ games are now broadcast in D.C., with 90% of the revenue going to Angelos. MASN was put together by MLB in order for the Nationals deal to go forward, but seeing the games on TV remains a continuing problem for fans.

Without a TV and broadcast partner, it will be up to the new owner to try and secure broadcasting rights for the Nationals, including broadcast revenue. But before that can even be addressed, Selig must finish his evaluation of what were originally eight different groups bidding on the team, and now pared down to the last two or three contenders, depending upon which newspaper or sports pundit to which you happen to listen.

After months and months of negotiations with the D.C. City Council to solidify a lease for the new stadium, expected to be ready for the 2008 MLB season, the Commissioner decided not to include the new ownership in the lease deal. But in the meantime, the cost of the stadium over the past year has risen from an estimated $537 million to $611 million. And it has just been revealed that the cost may be $10 million more if the city wishes to meet state-of-the-art environmentally friendly building standards.

But all potential ownership right now has to worry about is being politically correct and to make all kinds of promises to MLB as well as to Washington, D.C. lawmakers, in order to secure the team. The Nationals are now going to be used by MLB as the poster child for recruiting the black community back to baseball. However, the way it is being done will probably fall on deaf ears to the very ones MLB is supposedly trying to reach.

Where is this all going? Well, believe it or not Bud Selig wants to include in his legacy as being the MLB Commissioner who reinvigorated African-American athletes back into baseball, by insisting on an African-American owned team, and one which must have ties directly to Washington, D.C.

But whether the ties are to the Washington, D.C. residential community or are ties to the White House and Capitol Hill, is in question, as the list of investors looks more like a group of political action committees rather than potential baseball team owners. Look beneath the surface and you will find that campaigning for owning a baseball team in D.C. mirrors that of running for political office.

Bud Selig has made it clear: white rich guys need not apply. However, the idea that rich black guys will attract black children and young men to become interested in baseball is short-sighted. For black community leaders do not need to buy a $450 million baseball team to show devotion to their community and stir baseball interest. Such money could have been spent developing city recreation areas, better developing Little Leagues, building parks with baseball diamonds by creating more open space, encouraging physical fitness in the public schools and buying blocks of tickets for D.C. children to attend MLB games on a regular basis in Baltimore or in Washington, D.C.

Just like most American voters do not care about who the personnel is at the White House, but rather the White House’s public policy issues, the Washington D.C. black community will not increase their interest in MLB because a group of politically powerful and connected rich African-American males own stock in the team. And like disconnect on Capitol Hill between the U.S. Congress and its constituents, there is a potential disconnect between team investors or board members and the very fans they are expected to enlighten.

For example, the supposed three remaining groups of team bidders are the Lerner-Kasten Group, the Smulyan Group and the Malek-Zients Group. Although all are not quite perfect enough for Selig, however, who MLB insiders have said he requires a group which has significant black American investment as well as local ties to Washington, D.C. Although each group commands business savvy and are politically connected, it has weighed on Selig in his making up his mind.

Jeff Smulyan, former owner of the Seattle Mariners, heads a group of prominent Washington, D.C.- based African- Americans such as former Washington Redskins, Art Monk, Calvin Hill and Charles Mann; former U.S. Attorney Eric Holder; Radio One President, Alfred Liggins; and local banker, Dwight Bush. Smulyan also owns Emmis Broadcasting which could prove useful in negotiations of broadcast rights for the Nationals. But the knock against Smulyan is that he has been dubbed by D.C. politicians as an “outsider” as he does not presently live in the D.C. area. Yet, Smulyan black investors would comprise a 45% interest in the team.

The Lerner Group, headed by real estate developer, Ted Lerner, just this past week joined with Stan Kasten, who had been separately bidding on the team. Kasten brings with him a 17-year career as the former President of the Atlanta Braves. He also remains a friend of Selig’s. Ted Lerner has developed numerous shopping malls in the D.C. area and supposedly played a role in wooing the Expos to D.C. He brought aboard several local African-American investors, albeit a little later than the other groups. For that he has been criticized by the D.C. City Council, including MLB. His group includes Rodney Slater, former Secretary of Transportation under President Bill Clinton; Doyle Mitchell, CEO of Industrial Bank, N.A., locally owned in the D.C. area; CBS NFL broadcaster, James Brown; and BET executive Paxton Baker.

And the Fred Malek-Jeffrey Zients contingent offers the most political capital of all the groups. But if one is not looking to wind up on Capitol Hill, it could be argued that these are politicians and not community leaders for the inner city of Washington, D.C. The investors include former Secretary of State, Colin Powell; Howard University President H. Patrick Swigert; Vernon F. Jordan, former legal counsel to President Clinton; Anthony A. Lewis, Chairman Elect of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and President of Verizon Communications in, D.C.; and local businessman, George Haywood. Malek was a major figure in the Republican Party for over 30 years, working in the Nixon Whitehouse, was an associate of former President George H.W. Bush, and was instrumental in securing President George W. Bush’s previous ownership of the Texas Rangers.

Selig’s ultimate decision comes down to a mix of power brokers, media moguls and financial investors which hardly represent the interests of the middle and working class residents of the D.C. metro area. These particular African-Americans may prove to be no more connected to the D.C. black community’s interest than the white collaborators who initially landed the Nationals there.

In sum, these following figures perhaps should prove more meaningful to the Commissioner of MLB than the head count of African-Americans on a Board of Directors: in 2005 there were a total of seven minority club managers in MLB, which fell to five after Lloyd McClendon of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Tony Pena of the Kansas City Royals were let go. Ken Williams of the Chicago White Sox remains the only African-American General Manager in the game. And in the past thirty years, MLB lost more than two thirds of its black players. In 1975, nearly 30% of all MLB players were black. Today, black players total less than 10% while Latino players are over 30% and Asian players total about 3%.

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Diane M. Grassi is an investigative journalist and reporter providing topical and in-depth articles and analysis on U.S. public policy and governmental affairs, including key federal and state legislation as well as court decisions relative to the (more...)
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