What would a deal between Comcast and Leonsis mean for the Nationals, Orioles, and MASN?

The five-year old MASN dispute between the Nationals and Peter Angelos made news last week when the Orioles won a victory in the New York Supreme Court vacating the previous MLB arbitration decision awarding the Nats $60 million a year in TV rights fees. The victory was a temporary one for the O’s with only one major implication: this dispute is guaranteed to linger even longer than we originally thought. Fans hoping for a resolution to this mess will only have to wait.

In the aftermath of this decision came news this morning in the Washington Post Ted Leonsis’ Monumental Sports is negotiating a deal with ComcastSportsNet to own a piece of the Regional Sports Network (RSN). This development, if it comes to fruition, is notable to Nats fans for many reasons, and it raises some obvious questions.

First, Leonsis is now making a deal the Lerner family can only dream of making. Leonsis is following the industry trend in sports, where teams gain an equity share in a local RSN, a mutually beneficial arrangement for both parties. For the RSN, an equity partnership guarantees long-term rights to televise the team’s games, locking in live, local, and daily content, which is especially valuable in the DVR and “cord-cutting” era. For the team, an equity partnership ensures lucrative annual equity payments from the RSN and a protection against “carriage battles” (like MASN faced in 2005) since the RSN is owned by the cable provider.

By locking in Capitals and Wizards games long-term, CSN would make itself a valuable property in the foreseeable future. Were Leonsis to take his Capitals and Wizards broadcasts elsewhere, the network would likely shrivel up and die. It’s hard to imagine CSN surviving on DC United and Washington Kastles broadcast alone; they would need a flagship property among the four major sports to justify it’s carriage fee to cable subscribers. In return, Leonsis will see what promises to be high equity payments equal to a third of CSN’s revenue. This is huge for not only Leonsis’ personal wealth, it largely secures the financial security of his two teams.

Meanwhile, the Lerners are stuck in neutral in the middle of a nightmare scenario. The owners of the Nats lack to autonomy to strike a deal like the one Leonsis is making. Instead of getting equity in a large RSN like CSN, they have to settle for a smaller equity stake in MASN, plus a rights-fee which is currently the subject of litigation between the O’s and Nats. The biggest problem here, and one of the biggest complaints about MASN in general (besides Bob Carpenter), is that MASN leaves far too much money on the table with the way it is structured. The monthly per-subscriber carriage fee is generally believed to be much lower than what you would expect for a network carrying two valuable properties like the Orioles and Nationals. Put simply, baseball is the most valuable local television property simply because it’s live and it’s every day. Comparatively speaking, local baseball games rate very well in the right demographic advertisers are trying to reach. This isn’t my opinion, it’s fact reflected in the huge deals being struck around the country by baseball teams with local television providers.

The Orioles are fine with the fact MASN brings in less money than it otherwise could because they’re keeping the largest piece of the pie. They’d rather have the majority of smaller pot than risk a new financial arrangement where they would most assuredly be given a smaller piece considering how much smaller a market Baltimore is than Washington D.C. So the Orioles will fight and defend an outdated cable TV deal struck in 2004 before the Expos even moved to DC. The Nats can only sit and watch Leonsis take advantage of a new lucrative industry trend while Peter Angelos litigates in state court the right continue the trend of 10 years ago.

Prior to Leonsis striking a deal with Comcast, CSN likely represented the best compromise between the O’s and the Nats. CSN is carried in both Baltimore and Washington and they likely would have jumped at the chance to carry the Orioles and Nats, a move that would have instantly doubled the network’s value and made it a giant in the mid-Atlantic region. Now it’s fair to wonder if Leonsis has crowded the O’s and Nats out of the market place. It’s really hard to imagine CSN forming an equity partnership with Monumental, the O’s AND the Nats. Leonis got the table first, and now there’s no other RSN with the clout of Comcast to take its place. The O’s and Nats missed their opportunity back in 2014 when MLB tried to negotiate a sale of MASN to Comcast.

So Ted Leonsis is the winner. He not only secured his own financial future, he stuck it to a local competitor. For the Nats, it’s likely MASN today, MASN tomorrow, and MASN forever. Even if the Nats Houdini themselves out of the MASN deal, or Peter Angelos has an out-of-body experience and decides to compromise, there is one less option on the table. Comcast two years ago provided the Nats the easiest and most profitable way out of this MASN thicket. Now, as they watch the slow wheels of justice turn in the New York state court, the Lerners get to see the Comcast option taken by Ted Leonsis, a fellow sports owner lucky enough to never be forced to do business with Peter Angelos.

Explaining the MASN court decision in non-legal terms 

You’re probably confused about the MASN court decision, which is totally fine. If I wasn’t a lawyer, and I hadn’t read the decision myself, I’d be confused too. The reporting on the MASN issue has been particularly sparse. Reporters who cover baseball are not business reporters, nor are they lawyers (most of the reporting I’ve seen looks more like spin, leaked from one of the parties). To save you time, here’s my very brief analysis of today’s decision in non-legal terms so anyone can understand it. 


The MASN contract requires the network (majority owned by the Orioles) to pay the Nationals the right to broadcast their games. Every five years, the parties renegotiate these fees and go to arbitration if they don’t agree, which is exactly what happened here. The arbitration panel ruledin 2014, attempting to forge a compromise between the Nats and the O’s. The O’s didn’t want a compromise, they wanted to win, so they appealed the arbitration decision in court. 

The Court Case

To win, the Orioles had to prove there was something wrong with the arbitration. Like most lawyers do, the attorneys representing the O’s threw as much as they could against the wall, hoping something would stick. Among other things, they argued: fraud on the part of MLB when drafting the MASN contract, collusion between MLB and the Nats during the arbitration process, a conflict of interest for the arbitration panel members, and a conflict of interest for the attorneys representing the Nationals. In short, the O’s were hoping to get the arbitration award thrown out, so they could get another hearing and an award that required MASN to pay the Nats less money. 

The Decision

The Orioles won. The arbitration award was thrown out. However, the court rejected most of their arguments. The only argument they agreed with: there was a conflict of interest for the attorneys representing the Nationals. 


It’s a hollow victory for the Orioles. The arbitration award is thrown out, but on relatively narrow grounds. If there’s no appeal, or if this decision is upheld on appeal, there will still be another arbitration hearing, this time without the conflict of interest. The Nationals might get an even bigger award next time. TV rights fees have only risen since the last hearing. The biggest impact for the Nats, however, is in the short term. The have more uncertainty about their TV rights, and they’ll continue to wait for more TV money. This isn’t good news for Nats fans, but today’s “win” isn’t exactly a windfall for the Orioles either. The main battle is still to be fought. Either side could win. 

Thoughts on Bud Black as the new Nationals manager

I remember the first time I considered the possibility Matt Williams would be manager of the Washington Nationals. It was on a Sunday in August 2013, and the Nats were plodding their way through a mediocre summer. The team just gave away another winnable game, this time to the Kansas City Royals. The Nats didn’t just lose that day, they lost in the worst way imaginable: laziness. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the team allowed two baserunners, one when Adam LaRoche didn’t hustle to first base and one when Ryan Zimmerman failed to cover third base (I blogged about it at the time). The inning was symptomatic of the 2013 Nationals: unfocused and undisciplined play along with poor fundamentals. All season, the team appeared to have adopted the laid back “of course we’ll win the pennant” attitude of its manager, Davey Johnson. There were, of course, deeper problems with the 2013 Nats, but on that day, my frustration boiled over and I immediately dreamed of a new manager capable of giving this veteran team a swift kick in the ass.

About an hour later, almost as if by fate, I was watching an Arizona Diamondbacks game on MLB.TV as an Arizona player failed to properly execute a hit and run. The camera immediately cut to the third base coach—Matt Williams—and the scowl on his face. His anger was visible. If facial expressions could speak, the look on Williams’ face would have said “I can’t wait to get back to the dugout and light you up. On this team we execute fundamentals, son.”

One thought popped into my head. That’s exactly what this team needs.

Mike Rizzo must have been thinking the same thing that summer. During Matt Williams’ otherwise uneventful firing this month, Rizzo made a startling admission: he never considered anyone but Williams for the Nats manager position. The manager “search” that offseason was a sham. Williams was the first and only choice. It’s likely Rizzo watched the 2013 season with the same frustration I did. For 2014, Rizzo wanted the opposite of Davey Johnson. He wanted a guy who’d write detailed minute-by-minute schedules for spring training. He wanted a guy who’d demand adherence to fundamentals, and then have the courage to bench players who couldn’t comply. Davey was a laid back hipster. Rizzo wanted a “Marine”.

You see, that’s the way the world works. Everything is an overreaction to the event right before it. It’s not just baseball. In football, a “players coach” is almost always followed by a strong disciplinarian, and then the cycle reverses itself. A Jim Zorn is almost always followed by a Mike Shanahan. A Steve Spurrier is almost always followed a Marty Schottenheimer. It even happens in politics. It’s not a coincidence our nation elected Barack Obama and his cool, icy demeanor after eight years of George W. Bush and tough-talking Texas swagger. This is human nature. When people get tired of the Miami humidity, instead of looking for a temperate climate, they move to Alaska.

I don’t know Bud Black. I only know what I’ve read about him. It sounds like he was a competent manager in San Diego. He certainly has experience running a Major League clubhouse. But that’s the point isn’t it? After two years of Matt Williams and his bumbling amateurism, Mike Rizzo wouldn’t consider anyone else. His two finalists, Black and Dusty Baker, were not coincidentally two guys with the most managerial experience available.

So I don’t have a problem with the Bud Black hire. He might be the right guy. But it looks like Mike Rizzo may have doubled down on his previous mistake. Instead of conducting a full search, he zeroed in after developing a narrow set of criteria.

Overall, Rizzo has done a good job as General Manager. He’s demonstrated an ability to draft well and make smart trades. Other qualities, notably the ability to build a complete roster and improve the team in-season, have been lacking. Another troublesome area for Rizzo has been picking the right on-field leader for his ball club. He whiffed big on his last managerial hire. Now, he’s gambling on Bud Black. For the sake of his own job, he better hope Alaska is the perfect temperature.

What do the Nationals do with Papelbon?


Wow, there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s get started.

There’s no doubt the Nationals players are frustrated with this season, but nobody expected this. Jonathan Papelbon attacked Bryce Harper in the dugout after the two exchanged words in the bottom of the 8th inning. (Watch the video here). Based on obvious lipreading, Papelbon gave Harper a hard time after “not running out” a fly ball. Harper, frustrated by his at bat and the season in general, did not appreciate the impromtu lesson in the Unwritten Rules of Baseball, particularly from a relief pitcher who’s been with the team for about five minutes.

Was Papelbon right to say something to Harper? Maybe. Maybe not. Harper “not running out” the fly ball looked barely distinguishable from what we see Major Leaguers do every day. Compare Harper’s at bat to Dan Uggla’s in the 7th inning when he carried his bat all the way to first base. The better answer to the above question is “who cares?” Papelbon tried to CHOKE A TEAMMATE in the dugout during a game. If you spend any time worrying about the Unwritten Rules of Baseball here, you’re probably missing the larger point.

I hate to bring this up, but this incident is another byproduct the annoying and persistent “Harper doesn’t hustle” narrative that was born when Matt Williams benched him in April 2014 after “not running out” a ground ball. To most Nationals fans, that incident is ancient history, but I can assure it is not around baseball. During the Mets/Nationals series earlier this month at Nats Park, a Mets fan in front of me stood up every time Harper hit the ball and screamed something along the lines of “Hustle Harper! Make sure you touch first!” Remember the incident this summer when the Braves announcing team criticized Harper for “not hustling?” Matty the Manager put a target on Harper with that unfortunate event in April 2014, and it’s still there. It’s funny that Matt Williams will be fired next week, and his enduring legacy in DC will be a presumption that Harper doesn’t hustle. Of course, any Nationals fan watching Harper on a daily basis knows how ridiculous that presumption is.

Papelbon, though, appears to be one of those irritating “old school” players who adhere to that Unwritten Code of Baseball where touching first base after the fielder catches the ball is more important than anything else, including, it appears, basic human decency. Marvel for a minute on the irony of Papelbon lecturing a teammate on playing the game of the “right way” and then moments later physically assaulting that same teammate during a game. It’s safe to assume Papelbon watched Harper from a distance in Philadelphia, regularly muttering to himself about this young punk Harper who didn’t “respect the game.” He probably nodded with approval in the dugout that night Cole Hamels hit him with a pitch for no particular reason. Now on the same team, Papelbon took out a season’s worth of frustration on Harper because Harper is an easy target. Harper is always an easy target.

Anyway, that’s enough about the fight. The bigger question facing the Nationals is what to do about Papelbon. The Nationals picked up his option for next season as a condition of Papelbon waiving this no-trade clause to come to DC. There are many Nats fans who want to cut Papelbon outright, but that doesn’t absolve the team from paying his $11 million 2016 salary. The Nationals could trade Papelbon, but the market for Papelbon would probably be soft. His reputation as a bad teammate didn’t get any better during his stay in DC, and he has a relatively large salary. Moreover, the Nats would be trading with no leverage if there’s a presumption the Nats have to trade him.

The best option right now is to take it one step at a time. Papelbon already has one suspension pending appeal for throwing at Manny Machado. (Speaking of this, does anyone now doubt Papelbon threw intentionally at Machado last Wednesday?) Papelbon would be smart to drop his appeal and serve his suspension this season. The Nationals, Rizzo probably, would be wise to suspend Papelbon for this incident to send a message, whatever is allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. This will give the Nats time to address Papelbon’s status in the offseason. This may be hard to believe, but people are capable of moving on from events like this. People fight, and then they move on. It’s entirely possible Harper and Papelbon cannot exist in the same clubhouse next season, but the Nats should wait to make sure that’s actually the case before dumping Papelbon for pennies on the dollar.

This is all very sad because it overshadowed the classy sendoff for Ian Desmond that Jordan Zimmermann was denied Friday night. This has been a painful season. It would have been nice to end it on a high note. Instead, Jonathan Papelbon, the poster boy for the disappointing 2015 Nationals, is sending us out on a low one.

Matt Williams and his clueless decision on Jordan Zimmermann

It was sad to see Jordan Zimmermann pitch his final game in DC wearing a Nationals uniform. Zimmermann was here before the division titles, before Harper and Strasburg, and before national magazines regularly put Nats players on their covers. Zimmermann pitched for this team when there were 100 loss seasons and empty ballparks.

Players move on. It happens. Long ago I made peace with players like Jordan Zimmermann leaving via free agency. In fact, it can be a benefit. Sometimes fan favorites stick around too long. Personally, I’d rather see a player like Zimmermann leave when he’s on top. That way, we don’t have to watch the long, slow, expensive decline.

But it’s important to stop the revolving door and every now and then and appreciate what’s happening. Friday night should have been about Jordan Zimmermann making his final start in Washington as a National. It was the last chance for fans to show their appreciation.

Matt Williams denied fans that opportunity when he lifted Zimmermann for a pinch hitter in the fifth inning. Williams could have pulled Zimmermann mid inning, which would have allowed a curtain call. It would have been a perfectly logical thing to do. The Nats were losing 6-1. This season is over. Instead, Williams opted for a small tactical baseball manuveur when he could have created a larger moment of significance for the franchise. When the occasion called for the manager to think big, Williams acted small.

This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. Matt Williams showed a shocking lack of awareness during his Nationals tenure, which should be coming to a close very soon. As Williams made bizarre decision after bizarre decision this season, he never seemed to grasp the enormity of his ignorance. Williams is a linear thinker who sees baseball through a very narrow lens. In his world, the fifth inning was a pinch hit situation, so goshdarnit, he was pinch hitting. In Matty’s world, there are no larger considerations and there’s no other point of view. He’s the manager, and he’s going to manage his way.

It’s too bad because fans were robbed of something that could have been a pretty memorable moment. This isn’t a franchise with a lot of history. Jordan Zimmermann is easily best pitcher in team history. He was a big part of some very important moments to this young fanbase. Many fans went to Nats Park on Friday night for one reason: Jordan Zimmermann. Instead, thanks to our clueless and soon to be unemployed manager, it turned into another pointless September baseball game in a season where there have been far too many.

If Bryce Harper gets hit today, he has a right to be angry

It’s been a rough season for Bryce Harper. At the plate, of course, he’s having his best season as a pro, and he’s a lock to win the NL MVP award. But it has to be painful for Harper to put up that kind of performance, only to see his teammates bumble and stumble to a mediocre second place finish. Harper did his part this year, and more. His teammates, however, consistently let him down. 

Last night, he was let down again. In case you missed it, Nats reliever Jonathan Papelbon was ejected after throwing at the head of Manny Machado, perhaps in retaliation for the latter’s “pimping” after his home run in the 7th inning. Is it possible Papelbon momentarily lost his control, and wasn’t intentionally throwing at Machado? Perhaps, but the circumstantial evidence here is pretty damning. Papelbon twice threw in the direction of Machado’s head in three pitches. When asked about it after the game, Papelbon didn’t really defend himself too strongly, instead saying “perception is reality.” Maybe Papelbon wasn’t trying to hit Machado, and was only trying to “brush him back.” If so, that defense wouldn’t quite hold up in a court of law. Your honor, I was trying to fire the gun over the head of the victim! I wasn’t trying to kill him. Sure buddy, you’re going to jail. 

Whether Papelbon intentionally hit Machado is irrelevant at this point anyway, because everyone thinks he did, including the Orioles. Perception is reality. And now today, Bryce Harper will probably be hit by a pitch, because that’s the way these things work. 

Harper has unfortunately been on the wrong end of intentional beanings since he came in the league. Cole Hamels famously hit Harper during Bryce’s first week in the league, for no particular reason. The Braves continually hit Harper throughout the 2013 season, for largely imagined offenses against the sacred Unwritten Rules of Baseball. The idea of enforcing sportsmanship or tradition through beanballs is stupid, archaic, and dangerous. I hated it when teams did it against Harper, and I hate it even more when the Nats do it, which is what appears to be the case with Papelbon and Machado. 

While I generally hate pitchers intentionally throwing at batters, I have no problem with teams retaliating. If the Orioles throw at Harper today, it’ll be hard to blame them. Throwing at Machado last night was immature and dangerous. The Orioles pitchers are justified in sending a message they won’t tolerate it. It’s not about revenge. It’s not about taking the “high road” or the “low road.”  It’s about preventing it from happening again. 

In the past, I’ve criticized Nationals pitchers for not protecting Harper. In 2013, Stephen Strasburg eventually threw a pitch at Justin Upton after the Braves hit Bryce on multiple occasions. The retaliation generally worked, but it took way too long, and Bryce was hit way too many times before a Nationals pitcher stepped in to defend him. Earlier this season, Gio Gonzalez chickened out after a pretty blatant intentional beaning against the Reds. Tanner Roark retaliated the next day. You can bet Bryce takes note of which Nats pitchers have his back, and which ones don’t.

Retaliating when your players are targeted is only one way to protect your hitters, however. The most effective way is to avoid these pointless beanball wars in the first place. The last four years, I’ve grown weary of seeing Bryce Harper hit by pitches. Unfortunately, we might see another one today. For that, the Nats can only blame themselves. 

Picking up the pieces after the Mets sweep the Nats

The wreckage of the Nationals playoff hopes is scattered on the Nats Park infield and it’s hard to know where to begin picking up the pieces. Let’s start with Matt Williams, because we may not have Matt Williams to talk about very much longer. It’s getting harder and harder to imagine Williams returning to this team next year. The 2015 Nationals’ flameout was so swift and so complete it almost demands a scapegoat. 

Last night, Williams was hampered by the same thing that’s publicly haunted him all season: bullpen management. It was insane to put Drew Storen back on the mound last night with the game on the line considering what happened Tuesday night. Ordinarily, it’s smart management to believe in your players, but last night was anything but ordinary. It was a must win. And Tuesday night was anything but an ordinary poor performance by Storen. It was a complete mental breakdown. Storen didn’t just miss his pitches on Tuesday, he missed them by feet. After seeing what happened in Game 2 of this series, it was completely illogical for a manager to expect Storen to succeed last night, particularly against the exact same hitter who wrecked his confidence the night before. 

In a sense, the Storen decision was vintage Matty: choosing baseball convention over the most logical choice considering all the factors. In April, it’s probably a good idea to give your closer (or primary setup man) the chance to bounce back before a failure mentally metastasizes. But in a win or go home scenario, it’s rolling the dice and expecting two sixes.

But the decision to fire Williams won’t be made on bullpen management. As noted many times, managing a bullpen is only a small part of a manager’s job, and something that can be fixed or mitigated over time. Instead, Rizzo and team ownership will make the decision based on whether Williams is the right guy to lead this team. In that regard, there’s more than enough smoke to suspect Matty has lost the locker room. I’m not in the clubhouse, but those with access are reporting Matty’s dour demeanor and leadership style is not helpful in a pennant race. In baseball, it’s hard to measure the innate qualities in a clubhouse leader. Williams has definitely shown he can’t tactically push the right buttons. From the outside, however, it looks like he can’t inspire the team either. 

Will Williams make it through the season? I suspect he will. We don’t have far to go. A new string of losing against teams like the Marlins and Phillies might cause Rizzo to put Matty out of his misery, but Nats leadership is likely to wait and reasses everything once the season is over. 

Speaking of reassessing things, Williams’ job status is only one item on a long list. This season’s particular failure had a thousand fathers, and Williams is only one. The seeds of the Nats collapse this year were sown all over the field Wednesday night. It’s fitting names like Cespedes, Kelly Johnson, and Tyler Clippard played a role in the Mets sweep of the Nats because these guys weren’t even on the Mets roster a month and a half ago. Matt Williams was routinely outmanaged this season, but Mike Rizzo was thoroughly out general managed by Sandy Alderson. The Mets GM smelled blood in the water and made a run for the division by completely overhauling his roster. At the trade deadline, Rizzo did next to nothing. Cespedes could have manned the corner outfield with Harper in center, but Rizzo arrogantly expected hurt and recovering Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Denard Span to carry this offense to the playoffs. In retrospect it was a huge and unwise gamble. While the narrative will certainly focus on the bullpen right now, it’s easy to forget the Nats division deficit was created in August, when this team couldn’t score enough runs. Rizzo deliberately maintained a thin roster, which was thoroughly exposed after the trade deadline. 

There will be changes to the Nats this offseason–probably big ones. Matty might be gone, but the purge will only begin there.