Stan Kasten does not shy away from a challenge. Actually, the word “shy” is never associated with Kasten. He came to Washington in 2006 to oversee both the management of a new baseball franchise and the building of the more than $600 million Nationals Park. He beamed when the stadium got good reviews, and on the night of the opening game in 2008, when President George W. Bush tossed out the first pitch, and when Ryan Zimmerman closed that game with a spectacular home run. Altogether, it was a job well done.
That doesn’t mean it was always smooth going. Negotiations with the city were complicated. There were battles among city council members and among developers, and Kasten had to guide a family of owners, the Lerners, who were new to owning a major league baseball team. But he was up to the challenge. After all, at age 27 he started working with Ted Turner as president of the NBA Atlanta Hawks, then the MLB Atlanta Braves, and also the NHL Atlanta Thrashers.
It was a popular theory that MLB commissioner Bud Selig was grooming Kasten to eventually take his job, and when Kasten left the Nationals at the end of the 2010 season, some wondered what was up. From Kasten’s point of view, it was no big deal. He always said he’d stick with the Nats for five years, forging the team’s future with a combination of slow, steady growth and some big hires, namely pitcher Stephen Strasburg and outfielder Bryce Harper.
This past spring his foreseeable future got locked down. He became president and part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers (who have their own complicated story) in a deal that includes Magic Johnson, film producer Peter Guber, and Mark Walter of Guggenheim Partners. Walter is the principal owner. The closing on the sale happened auspiciously, the day after the Dodgers swept the Nationals in a three-game series in LA. Does Kasten have some kind of voodoo on his side? He would tell you he wished for that outcome. We chatted with him by phone Monday evening, a little more than a month into his new stewardship, as he readied for a home game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
Does Washington cross your mind anymore?
I do miss Washington. I love Washington.
Minus having to start from scratch, does taking over the Dodgers feel like dé jà vu?
It’s really a very different challenge. The Dodgers have been up and running. The organization has been up and running. We just have to find a way to maximize it. It is the second biggest market in the country, the entertainment capital of the world, and a fan base with a connection to this team as strong as any team anywhere. All those things are different and thrilling. If we play our cards right we can have real success here.
Does this mean a lot of celebrities at the games?
A lot of TV and movie actors. I don’t know all of them, or their names. I see Larry King every night.
Now we know what Larry’s up to.
He comes to every freaking game.
When you left Washington did you have in mind that you wanted to get back into team ownership?
There were a number of people asking me to look at things and consider things, and I didn’t know where it would end up. Within a few months it became apparent the Dodgers could become available. But I didn’t know when I left Washington that it would happen.
So you didn’t leave here burned out on baseball?
No, not at all.
How does the Dodgers’ principal owner, Mark Walter, compare to the Lerners?
My new owner is a terrific guy, and we have partners who are tremendously supportive and progressive to do all the right things in a way that we really capitalize on the size and the breadth of this market. Mark is the owner. The face of our group is Magic Johnson. It’s what sets our ownership group apart and makes it distinctive.
When did you first meet Johnson?
Twenty years ago or more. We were both in the NBA. Things in the NBA are smaller than in baseball. I actually offered him a coaching job in the ’90s in Atlanta.
When did you find out he was interested in baseball team ownership?
I stayed in touch with his people a lot, and once Mark and I decided to pursue LA, I said, “I really want you to meet Magic.” Like me, he had a lot of people reaching out, wanting him to join a group. Magic agreed to join us within an hour of our first meeting. We all made the decision to do this together.
Looking back at Washington, what do you see?
A fantastic town. I appreciate the intimacy. LA is bigger and more complex. It’s impossible to get your hands around all the moving parts. In DC it’s really manageable and easy to get to know the right people. With Washington, I appreciate it more looking back, especially the intimacy. For a city as important as DC it’s really interesting that it is still very much a big small town.
What do you see as your legacy with the Nats?
It wasn’t me. There are a lot of good people in that organization—[general manager] Mike Rizzo, [scouting director] Kris Kline, and [assistant GM for player personnel] Roy Clark have done a terrific job of putting together a great young team, mostly homegrown, and when it was important to strike this past season they went back and added some key pieces.
You oversaw the hiring of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Do you think Strasburg has recovered from his Tommy John shoulder surgery at the expected rate?
I didn’t get Strasburg. It was our scouts who got him. It looks like he’s all the way back. Chipper Jones [of the Braves] said [Strasburg is] the best pitcher in baseball, and he may well be right. I know people are always going to worry about his longevity, but in terms of coming back and having the same repertoire I would say he’s made it all the way back.
And what about Bryce Harper?
It’s just so exciting to watch him do exactly what we thought he would do every night. Very, very different personality from Stephen, but just as valid. We thought we had as sure a thing as you could have with both of those guys. No doubt whatsoever. And that’s going to hold up.
Does it validate your philosophy of slow and steady growth when building a team?
I don’t want to speak to the speed. Someone else can judge whether it should have been quicker. Growing a team is not something we invented. That’s been a truism in baseball for almost a century. The problem is having the patience. The Nats did that, and now they are reaping the benefits.
Any regrets about Washington?
We didn’t bat a thousand in all our decisions, but nobody does. But look where they are today.
What did you do with your shares of the Nationals?
Sold them back to the Lerner family.
What kind of grade would you give the city in supporting the development of the team and the stadium?
It was vitally important. I know there were hurdles, and I know there were bumps in the road. It’s what they say about making a hot dog: You don’t want to watch the process. The final result of that process is the team and real development in Southeast. The city gets an A-plus for what they ended up with.
Did you phone the Lerners to tell them the news when you bought the Dodgers?
All five of them called me that very night when the news broke that we got the Dodgers. They were great.
So, for now you’re putting off taking over the commissioner’s job?
This is a much better job than that.
Any predictions for the future?
The Dodgers have the best record in baseball. We’re only in the first quarter of the way around, and we’ll be there at the end, competing, and the Nats will be as well.
The Nats and Dodgers meet again in September, in Washington. Will you come back here for the game? When it’s payback time?