Sources: Lerner picked as next Nationals owner

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals will be sold to developer Theodore Lerner's group, which Major League Baseball selected over seven other suitors to buy the franchise for about $450 million.

The selection was confirmed Wednesday by a baseball official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the announcement, expected in a late afternoon conference call, had not been made.

Lerner's group, which includes former Atlanta Braves executive Stan Kasten, beat out top contenders including groups headed by former Seattle Mariners owner Jeffrey Smulyan and by Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients, the heads of the Washington Baseball Club, which worked for years to bring a big-league club to the capital.

Kasten is close to baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who made the selection, and was among the management executives who assisted in the 1994-95 strike negotiations. Katsen wouldn't comment when contacted Tuesday night.

Lerner, a Maryland-based real estate businessman, was to hold a news conference later Wednesday. His selection was first reported Wednesday by The Washington Times and The Washington Post's Web site.

Kasten has also run the NBA's Atlanta Hawks and the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers. Lerner's son, Mark, is a part-owner of the Washington Capitals NHL team.

Local business leaders were pleased that a family with strong ties to the region will be running the franchise.

"This is what we've wanted from Major League Baseball for two years," said Scott Sterling, vice president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, which represents most of the region's major private sector employers.

On Tuesday, the D.C. Council rejected a proposal that would have urged baseball to pick the Malek-Zients or Smulyan groups.

Major League Baseball's other 29 clubs bought the then-Montreal Expos in 2002 for $120 million as part of a complicated transaction that also involved new owners for the Boston Red Sox and Florida Marlins.

After moving the Expos to Washington for the 2005 season, baseball hoped to sell before the Nationals had played a game in their new city. Then the goal was the early summer, then the All-Star break, then the end of last season.

By November, with lease negotiations between baseball and Washington dragging on, Selig said he would stop setting timetables for completing the team's sale. His one hedge then: A new owner would probably be selected before the start of the 2006 season.

That semi-deadline passed, too, and Washington entered its home game Wednesday night against the Florida Marlins at 9-18, the third-worst record in the National League. Manager Frank Robinson has said he thinks the uncertainty surrounding the team's ownership hurt its chances to sign top free agents last offseason.

Attendance has been sagging early this season, with the Nationals' most recent four games at RFK Stadium each drawing fewer fans than the thinnest crowd in 2005.

Stadium lease negotiations between the city and baseball dragged on into February before the District of Columbia Council approved a deal capping city spending on the ballpark project at about $610 million. Baseball signed the lease in March, and a ceremonial groundbreaking for the team's new stadium is scheduled for Thursday. The plan is to have the stadium ready for the 2008 season.

Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, said last week that Selig wants to have a vote on the sale of the Nationals when major-league owners meet May 17-18 in New York. DuPuy said he thinks the sale will close by mid-June.