One of the joys of covering the Nationals for the past several years has been regular interaction with Stan Kasten, the team’s president. Kasten was omnipresent, never hiding in an office where the media couldn’t find him. He was visible in good times and bad. He was never at a loss for words, often holding court for reporters and relishing the opportunity. More than most front-office types in professional sports, Kasten understood the media’s role and the unique chance he had to help formulate local, regional and national views of a team trying to create an identity.
Unfortunately, dealing with Kasten could also be one of the most frustrating aspects of the Nationals beat. He could be surly, rude and downright mean when he wanted to be. For every time he basked in the media spotlight, there were multiple times he showed a complete disdain for those covering his team. He scolded, cursed and threatened reporters, then showed up in the press box to feast on vanilla ice cream and pretended nothing unusual had happened. And no other team executive has mastered the ability to speak long and loud but say as little as humanly possible.
Now, the man who often did little to hide his contempt for the media is, well, one of us.
Kasten is a relatively new addition to the rotating collection of suits that inhabit the set at “Hot Stove,” the nightly recap of all things baseball on the MLB Network. He actually started the gig back at the Winter Meetings, but Monday night’s round table discussion of the National League East teams and their prospects for 2011, caught my eye because of Kasten’s presence on the dais with host Matt Vasgersian and former major leaguers Mitch Williams and Kevin Millar.
The hour-long gabfest was vintage Kasten, full of insightful, forceful commentary that lent a bent few others could offer. Kasten didn’t pull punches, even when asked how the Nats would fare next season. Williams promoted Washington for a surprising third-place finish; Kasten shrugged off the possibility of that turnaround, remarked that his old team had improved its defense but still had some offensive holes and predicted a “big jump” for the Nationals in 2012. But he got through the segment without a single mention of Stephen Strasburg, something that never would have happened - Tommy John surgery notwithstanding - in his former role with the Nats.
It’s good to see Kasten keeping his passion for baseball alive, even if, in reality, he’s never left the game. Though he resigned as the Nationals’ president effective at last season’s end, Kasten maintains a minority ownership of the club (which he will only be forced to sell if he buys into another major league team). He’s been linked to other opportunities since making the announcement that he was leaving the Nationals, but has usually dismissed them. Kasten, viewed as a potential replacement for Commissioner Bud Selig, told reporters in September that no one in the game thinks Selig will actually stick to his retirement plans. The former Nationals president also was rumored to be part of a group thinking of buying the Houston Astros.
But this new job may provide a huge challenge for Kasten, who usually likes to control what’s happening around him, not fall in line to the voice speaking into a hidden earpiece. His unabashed commentary will be welcomed, even encouraged, but Kasten is going to have to do more than overstate the obvious, and he won’t be able to be long-winded in his viewpoints. Brevity isn’t something usually associated with Kasten; he’ll have to learn to be concise and succinct.
What Kasten brings to the MLB Network is an insider’s view that few others can offer. Former players have on-field activity as a reference point. Former general managers can speak to the game from that perspective. Kasten had a unique angle from a long, storied career: He was a guy who regularly interacted with players, who kept a tight rein on what was happening in his own front office, who enjoyed success and was maddened by failure at the helm of baseball, basketball and hockey clubs. He never played or managed, but Kasten had his hand in every other facet of a baseball team possible.
And, to be sure, the man’s a born storyteller who can work a room. He delivers a punch line like no other, like last night, when he explained how, when he was at the Atlanta Braves’ helm, he literally traded a player to be named - a Latin-American player who had changed names but whose new moniker wasn’t readily available when the deal was consummated. Kasten’s eyes twinkled as he reeled in his fellow commentators and his smile made it appear he was letting viewers in on a heretofore unknown secret.
It’s Kasten’s challenge to cull, from his encyclopedic knowledge of the game from an executive level, opinions that will resonate with average fans. Kasten can’t talk down to them, as he often did to reporters who incurred his wrath. He can’t talk over their heads, either, and we’re speaking of a guy who knows a lot of big, impressive words. He’s just got to talk and opine and back up his assertions with concrete evidence. And he’s got to be willing to engage in dialogue, not one-sided, I-speak-you-listen monologues. They might be ripe with sound bytes and intriguing nuggets, but too much bluster will disengage an audience that has several hundred other options on their cable or satellite packages should Kasten become too self-important.
Kasten is no run-of-the-mill talking head. He is smart, witty and possesses the kind of enthusiasm that could make him a media darling. But he has to tone down the rhetoric, minimize the empty oratory and focus on a well-defined opinion. It may not be in Kasten’s DNA to be a bit player on a larger stage; however, if he can master that complementary role in this new opportunity, he’ll be warmly welcomed into living rooms. Otherwise, he risks being, as Shakespeare warned, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.