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November, 2001

A certain Jeff Smulyan appeared on ESPN's then-fledgling "Nightline of Sports,* Outside the Lines. You probably recognize the date of the program as directly following the Yankees-Diamonbacks World Series and squarely in the midst of Bud Selig's Era of Contraction Feelers. Smulyan, for his part, came to Selig's aid and comfort during a roundtable-via-satellite discussion. As part of the discussion, Smulyan covered a couple topics that Nats fans might find interesting:

Ley - ... Jeff would you buy back into the industry?

Smulyan - Absolutely not. And I love Bud, and I love the people in the game. But the economics of baseball are insane. You've got most of the teams losing money. The game is billions of dollars in debt. And it is a game Andrew that is absolutely at an economic crossroads, and it has to change. And keeping teams that can't make money, just because people demand that they lose money is insanity, and you know that.

. . .

Ley - Jeff, is it important for baseball to keep an empty city like that for bargaining position, if D.C. stays empty?

Smulyan - I think that notion of empty city has been wildly, wildly overstated. The economics of this game are such that you could put baseball today in Washington, D.C. or Charlotte, North Carolina or Indianapolis or Orlando, Florida and I can tell you, you can't make money with this game the way it is today.

You just built new ball parks in Pittsburgh, Detroit and Milwaukee. And the economics are so far out of hand; look at Detroit. They are drawing what 17,000 people in the second year of a brand new ball park. The game is out of hand, and the notion that you can all of a sudden make money moving to a new town is crazy.

(emphasis added)

Okay, a few notes:

  • These quotes are fairly well-known, so please don't interpret my excerpting them as an attempt to foist off a new-found smoking gun of any type. In fact, I think I might have actually watched the original airing of the program four-and-change years ago.
  • A person saying one thing four years ago and saying something vastly different today does not necessitate the finding that the person is a hypocrite, opportunist, or otherwise untrustworthy.
  • Obviously, Smulyan was filling a role during this and other roundtable discussions leading up to the 2002 Collective Bargaining Agreement negotations.
  • Furthermore, things have changed since November 2001; the CBA deal signed the following summer, as the late, great Doug Pappas summarized at the time, did institute some broad-based, owner-friendly changes.
Still, the words of public figures create a written record. You or I might deny we ever said certain things, but Smulyan cannot deny stating he "absolutely" would never buy back into Organized Baseball. Did the changes of '02 change that much? I suppose the proof will be in the pudding later this year or the next, if Smulyan is (re)installed as a Lord of the Realm. You can bet that the rhetoric would be renewed, and with vigor.

Yet, this exercise is not intended to expose Smulyan as a bad guy---I'm not even sure you could based on the transcript of that interview. Instead, the point is to explore whether he's the best guy in Nats Derby. For whatever little this is worth, I submit the burden is on Smulyan to demonstrate that he stands out (positively) among the candidates to own the Nats.

Of course, on second thought, that last sentence isn't remotely true. The only applicable standard seems to be that the prospective owners have buddies already in the circle. Smulyan does have such a buddy, Jerry Reinsdorf---and that factor, not some interview fifty-one months ago, will no doubt weigh heavily on the Seligulans.

By the way, I mentioned Smulyan made these comments in a roundtable discussion, and you'll notice Smulyan acknowledged someone named "Andrew" in those excerpts. That "Andrew" is one and the same with author/economist Andrew Zimbalist, of whom I recently noted I would potentially have the opportunity to interview. That potential has turned into near-reality, as I will interview Zimbalist concerning his new book (especially the Natty-centric aspects) in the coming days. I will, of course, ask Zimbalist what he thinks of Smulyan's bid to own the Nats.

*Actually, back then I think OTL was still the "This Week of Sports," but this does raise the interesting question of whether Bob Ley would rather be compared to a deposed guy or a dead guy.