Stan Kasten Looks Back at the Nationals And Forward With the LA Dodgers

The Nats’ former president reflects on his Washington days and his new team.
A rare photo of Stan Kasten sitting still, here in the Presidents Club, when he was still president of the Washington Nationals. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.
A rare photo of Stan Kasten sitting still, here in the Presidents Club, when he was still president of the Washington Nationals. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

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?

No idea.

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