Jeff Smulyan may not live around here yet. But he’s already got some trusty connections.
“I got a call last week,” says Smulyan, a broadcasting executive based in Indianapolis who is among the bidders to own the Washington Nationals, “and the guy told me, ‘People think you’re the front-runner. Watch out. You’re gonna get killed!’”
And killed he has been, D.C.-style. The first blows came in a Sept. 24 column by Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post columnist and the most important baseball writer in town. Awarding Smulyan the team, Boswell wrote, “may be a disastrous decision for baseball, Washington and the Nationals.” Of all the ownership groups in contention, the one headed by Smulyan, a former owner of the Seattle Mariners, would be “a particularly poor choice.”
The company Smulyan runs, Emmis Communications, has in just the past two months sold off television stations worth a reported $940 million. According to a Sept. 29 report in the trade publication Mediaweek, sales of three more stations are imminent, which would push his company’s recent haul well over the billion-dollar mark. Smulyan says his baseball bid is backed by Emmis. And even before the corporate windfall, Smulyan had assembled a kitty of at least $450 million to hand over to Major League Baseball should he win the sweepstakes.
Yet the esteemed Post columnist painted Smulyan as—egads!—too poor to give the locals a winner, hinting that there would be no guarantee he’d keep the team in the District.
“Smulyan is as close as you could come to unearthing a modern-day equivalent of [former Washington Senators owner Bob] Short,” wrote Boswell, “who was an under-funded carpetbagger without local roots who ran the team on the cheap, bad-mouthed Washington as a baseball city, constantly sought concessions from the District government and then absconded to Texas, where the cash looked greener.”
“Tom knows me,” Smulyan says. “I don’t know why he wrote what he did.” (Boswell did not respond to a phone message.)
Smulyan hoped to recover from the Boswell beating by going to another local idol maker who knows him: WRC-TV’s George Michael, the city’s top sports anchor.
Alas, the Michael interview only deepened the wounds. First, Michael was tough on him—“Don’t con me!” Michael railed after Smulyan contended that MLB has always wanted to have a franchise in the nation’s capital. Then Jim Vance, Michael’s Channel 4 colleague and the longest-continuously-tenured and most credible news anchor around these parts, followed up by blasting baseball for even considering an out-of-towner.
“George used to work for me,” says Smulyan. “I’d taped the interview that day. That night I’m sitting in my hotel room watching the [WRC] news, and suddenly this guy who doesn’t know me is attacking me.”
The Michael-Vance sandbagging of Smulyan was such good television, Channel 4 treated it like a news story during the next night’s evening and late-night broadcasts. Michael read several e-mails from viewers about the double-team on the air, and Vance challenged the authenticity of the one that defended Smulyan.
“That’s from Mr. Smulyan,” Vance hissed. (He also did not respond to a phone message.)
Nothing speaks to Smulyan’s standing as a D.C. outsider as much as his seeming surprise at the way he’s been treated around here of late. Even if he hadn’t been warned about an imminent pummeling—he won’t reveal who gave him the heads-up that he’d be “killed”—Smulyan should have seen it coming. The other ownership groups that have been tagged as front-runners in the past few months have also been given a similar pounding.
The syndicate headed by U.S. Office Products billionaire Jonathan Ledecky, for example, got a huge financial boost when it landed an even more flush partner, longtime Ledecky benefactor George Soros. The ink on the Soros team’s announcement hadn’t dried before members of Congress were hinting that they’d use the law of the land or whatever it takes to stop Soros, who spent tens of millions of his own money trying to defeat George W. Bush in the last presidential election, from having a hand in baseball’s return to Washington.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) was soon threatening to repeal baseball’s antitrust exemption unless Soros was kept out of the mix; Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said Soros’ bankroll “could be drug money.”
Then Fred Malek, a Bush crony, looked like the chalk. Next thing you know, everybody’s digging up Malek’s anti-Semitic skeletons and outing him yet again as the guy who did President Nixon’s bidding in 1971 by compiling a list of all the Jews working in the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Now it’s Smulyan’s turn.
“I don’t know if we can say exactly why the Boswell piece and all the other [negative] stuff came out all at once, but I think we all warned Jeff that Washington is a unique place,” says Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney for D.C. and an investor in Smulyan’s group. “I think the local sensitivities are greater here than anyplace else, the fact that D.C. isn’t a state, being under the thumb of Congress. But I don’t think the criticism that he’s getting is deserved. Maybe it’s an indication that people in other circles think that he might get picked, and, being this close to the decision [of who gets the team], it all gets magnified.”
After the Boswell slam, Smulyan put together a press kit for D.C. media that he thinks spells out his fitness to own a baseball team here. The package would be at least as appropriate if he were running for mayor...of Indianapolis. Among the résumé highlights on the red-white-and-blue backgrounder are mentions that Smulyan was once named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Indianapolis Business Journal and that he was inducted into the Indiana Business Hall of Fame.
There’s no hint, however, of his Seattle Mariners tenure or of any connection to baseball.
But Smulyan says that he’ll play the whipping boy if that’s what’s required to win his current competition. He promises he’ll buy a house in town should baseball take his $450 million over everybody else’s $450 million and that he’ll never move the team no matter where he’s from. Smulyan understands why D.C. folks would root for one of their own over a guy from Indiana, but he just wishes his attackers would stop insinuating the ownership decision should come down to who has the most favorable home address.
“I keep hearing, ‘Local ownership!’” he says. “And I understand that. But it’s also true that the most local owner baseball had was Marge Schott. That didn’t work out, did it?”—Dave McKenna
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.