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Kasten the Straw That Will Stir the New Nationals Ownership Drink

4th May 2006

Stan Kasten is, if nothing, outspoken. Opinions from him have ranged from the elimination of player agents to placing an MLB franchise in Northern New Jersey – George Steinbrenner and Fred Wilpon be damned.

Kasten is also an extremely capable executive in the world of professional sports. You don’t become president of not one, not two, but three major professional sports franchises… all at the same time. He is the only executive to ever run three at once.

If there was a tipping point for Bud Selig in his selection process for the Washington Nationals ownership, surely Stan Kasten was the reason.

Kasten will become president of a franchise (Not surprisingly, Tony Tavares will be stepping down) that will need to move dramatically on several fronts once the transaction has been completed (this will occur, most likely, in June) if it wishes to be successful.

Kasten has been here before.

In his time with the Atlanta Braves, he lured John Schuerholz from the Kansas City Royals , bumped Bobby Cox from the GM position and into the dugout –installing Schuerholz as GM –and helped orchestrate the construction of Turner Field along with Janet-Marie Smith. To add to this, he was with lightening rod and maverick, Ted Turner as, basically, his second in command for the better part of 25 years.

Look up the word “multi-task” and Kasten’s probably there on the page.

He also will be inheriting a franchise that has been cobbled by the collective ownership of MLB. Yes, Commissioner Selig will tell you that Tony Tavares was given the same latitude as any other president. Yes, he will say Jim Bowden could pull the trigger on any free agency deals he liked, just like any other GM. Pardon me, Mr. Commissioner, but that’s buckus.

The franchise has been a ward of MLB. It had no passionate owner that, if it struck their fancy, could pull the trigger on a major deal. It’s had a front office that has been one part MLB staff, and one part temporary service – from Tavares, to Bowden, to manager Frank Robinson, the positions they’ve held have always been assumed to be hanging in the balance when new owners were selected.

Kasten will have to deal with transitioning a vast majority of the front office, part of which is still operating out of Montreal.

With that, the make up of the major league, as well as minor league rosters, have been lackluster due to the constraints. Kasten will need to get a GM (if Bowden were retained past the end of this season, it would be a shock to the system), a new philosophy, and some capital to start the process of turning the team back into something other than MLB’s bastard stepchild.

To add to this there’s the small matter of fostering, cajoling, and administering the construction of a $611 million stadium that, at best, is under constraint, and at worst, is a focal point of political debate in a city where politics rules the roost. Kasten, most likely, will be the liaison between Ted Lerner and the DC Council that has made it clear that there will be considerable oversight on the massive public/private stadium works project. Kasten’s experience with Turner Field will play a key roll in this process, and as mentioned, had to be a key deciding factor for Selig when he “agonized” over the selection process for ownership of the Nationals.

The largest factor maybe the ability to properly market the club.

When MLB relocated the Expos to DC, they decided to indemnify Peter Angelos and the Baltimore Orioles (well, they didn’t have to, but they did anyway… that’s a story for another day). Part of that deal was the creation of a Regional Sports Network (RSN), from which we now have Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), of which the Nationals and Orioles are now a part of. The problem is, Comcast is a key carrier in the DC area (at 1.3 million subscribers in the region and 100,000 customers in the District, they are the largest carrier that would carry Nationals games), and the two have been locked in a battle, not over the Nationals, but rather the television rights to the Orioles. Comcast is suing Angelos over the right to air the Orioles after the cable company’s contract with the team expires at the end of this season.

Kasten will surely be pushing to see the Nationals shown on Comcast. It has hurt the ability of the Nationals to market the club, on top of the lackluster performance on the field this season. That has added up to a drop in attendance in aging RFK in the second year of the franchise being in the District.

All of these issues tie in with Kasten’s background. While we may never know, it seems a safe bet that without Kasten merging in with the Lerner group, we’d be discussing the Zients/Malek group as the new owners today. The question is, did Selig orchestrate the merger? Did Selig look at the success of how merging Henry, Werner, Lucchino and selecting them as the winning bidders for the Boston Red Sox in 2002? Did Selig decide that given the large market and high visibility that the franchise in DC would have, it was in MLB’s best interest to do a little moving of the parts to create the best group possible? We will have to wait and see if that ever comes to light.

What is certain in all of this, is that Kasten was the straw that stirred the Nationals ownership cocktail.

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