WASHINGTON — Finally, four years after Major League Baseball bought the Montreal Expos, three years after the team was playing home games in Puerto Rico, two years after local fans cheered the return of baseball and one year after the Nationals found themselves in first place at the All-Star break, Commissioner Bud Selig on Wednesday announced the sale of the team to a local family.
"This was one of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make," Selig said in a late-afternoon conference call with reporters. Describing all eight investor group candidates as "well-qualified," Selig spoke of nights when he woke at 3 a.m. with a yellow legal pad to ponder the decision.
In the end, citing among others the O'Malleys in L.A., Selig said it was family ownership -- and adherence to Selig's no-talk admonitions -- that won the deal for Theodore Lerner, the 80-year-old head of a development empire based in Bethesda, Md.
"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," Selig said.
Lerner, who as a low-income kid took a job as an usher at Griffith Stadium so he could watch the Washington Senators play, tried to buy the Baltimore Orioles in 1975 and one year later offered the San Francisco Giants $10 million in cash to bring baseball to Washington.
One reason he lost the campaign to buy the Orioles, Lerner has said, is that he talked to the media. Wednesday he made his first appearance in front of the press during this campaign.
"You cannot imagine how proud and humble I feel standing here," Lerner said. "For a kid from the District, this is a very exciting day."
Lerner described the thrill of watching Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Babe Ruth play at Griffith Stadium.
The deal must be approved by a majority of baseball's 29 other owners, who meet in New York on May 17-18. The owners stand to profit handsomely from their decision in February 2002 to buy the financially struggling Expos for $120 million. The $450-million price paid by Lerner could earn them each about $15 million, but Selig said "the owners of this sport took a huge gamble, spent a lot of money, lost a lot of money" and deserve whatever return they get.
The Lerner bid -- Theodore Lerner will be joined in managing the team by his 52-year-old son Mark and his two sons-in-law -- was bolstered last month when Lerner joined forces with another bidder, former Atlanta Brave president Stan Kasten, promising to appoint him president of the Nationals if the Lerner bid was successful.
Asked what role the Kasten factor played in his decision, Selig called it "a manifestation of how they're going to operate this club. They're going to get the best they can."
Kasten, at Lerner's side Wednesday, predicted the Nationals will become "the gem of baseball."
The Lerner bid beat out those of a group led by former Seattle Mariner owner Jeffrey Smulyan and another group led by Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients. Malek was one of the leaders in a lengthy campaign to win a baseball team for Washington.
D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams brushed aside concerns from some city officials about minority investors -- the Lerners have eight minority owners, including former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater.
Over the last two years, the star-crossed fate of baseball in Washington broke many a fan's heart. A deal over financing of a 41,000-seat stadium fell apart, but was rescued in February with a caveat capping the city's investment at $534 million. Groundbreaking is set for today.
Attendance last season was so robust -- the Nationals sold 2.7 million tickets -- that baseball seemed in no rush to sell, especially when the sale of merchandise topped $10 million.
And Selig could not seem to settle on a new owner between eight competing groups, all with deep pockets. On Wednesday, Selig said he understood why "fans were getting restless."
This season, attendance has fallen, along with the Nationals' record (9-19).
Second baseman Jose Vidro, the player who has been with the franchise the longest, expressed relief.
"We thought we were going to have this last year," he told the Associated Press.
"Now that it's finally done, it's a great step forward for this organization. We feel like we're competing the same as the rest of the league. We have an owner, and he's going to back us up."