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Republicans Warn MLB on Soros’ Nats Bid

Three months into their inaugural season, the Washington Nationals are in first place. Attendance is strong, hopes are high, and the team is reportedly turning a tidy profit.

But to some Capitol Hill Republicans there is a dark cloud on the Nats’ horizon: the potential that their newly adopted home team could be purchased by billionaire financier George Soros.

Earlier this month, Soros joined an ownership bid being led by entrepreneur Jonathan Ledecky. Their group is one of more than a half-dozen angling to take over the Nats, who are currently owned by Major League Baseball.

In addition to being a well-known currency speculator and philanthropist, Soros is also known in political circles for having pumped more than $20 million in the last cycle into groups seeking to unseat President Bush and elect Democrats.

While the Soros-Ledecky group is not seen as the frontrunner to win the bidding for the Nationals, who should be awarded to their new owner at the end of the 2005 season, the very prospect that Soros could have a stake in the team is enough to irritate Congressional Republicans.

“I think Major League Baseball understands the stakes,” said Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R), the Northern Virginia lawmaker who recently convened high-profile steroid hearings. “I don’t think they want to get involved in a political fight.”

Davis, whose panel also oversees District of Columbia issues, said that if a Soros sale went through, “I don’t think it’s the Nats that get hurt. I think it’s Major League Baseball that gets hurt. They enjoy all sorts of exemptions” from anti-trust laws.

Indeed, Hill Republicans could potentially make life difficult for MLB in a variety of ways. In addition to being exempt from anti-trust rules, baseball is still under scrutiny over the steroid issue. The Nats, meanwhile, hope to have a publicly-funded stadium built soon, though money for that venture is expected to come through the sale of bonds rather than a federal outlay.

Still, Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.), vice chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that covers the District of Columbia budget, said if Soros buys the team and seeks public funding for the new stadium or anything else, the GOP attitude would be, “Let him pay for it.”

“We’re not going to interfere with [the sale], but from a fan’s perspective, who needs the politics?” Sweeney said.

Another senior Republican lawmaker who requested anonymity said that the league should be aware of the perception problem that might be associated with selling the Nats to Soros.

“Why would Major League Baseball want to get involved with George Soros?” said the lawmaker. “It’s about more than just the sale price.”

Efforts to reach Soros for comment on this story were unsuccessful.

Lucy Calautti, the director of government relations for the office of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, said: “We’re glad to see that there is so much interest in the Washington Nationals, and whether it’s one group preferring a certain ownership group and others preferring yet another ownership group, we’re just grateful for the excitement revolving around the Nationals.”

Not all Republicans are fearful of Soros owning the Nats. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.) jokingly looked for a silver lining in the possibility.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” he said. “Maybe if he buys the team, he’ll be too busy to create unregulated 527s.”

Soros isn’t the only political big-shot looking to buy the Nats. The ownership group seen by many insiders as the frontrunner to buy the team includes Fred Malek, a close friend of President Bush, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Another bidding group includes ex-Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.).

The current crop of baseball owners has its own share of political activists. New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was once temporarily banned from the game for making illegal campaign donations to President Richard Nixon. And while Soros may be disliked by Republicans, there is an established owner in the region who already gets the GOP’s blood boiling.

“It’s bad enough that [Peter] Angelos owns the Orioles,” said Sweeney.

Several Members lamented the prospect that Soros would join the same local owners’ club as Angelos, a wealthy trial lawyer and prominent donor to Democratic candidates and groups.

“Angelos and Soros?” Davis said. “I’m going to have to go to Philadelphia to watch a baseball game.”

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