The first phone call I ever made to Stan Kasten was in March 2008, in my first few days at the Washington Times. Paul Lo Duca had told me that, contrary to what most of us around the Nationals thought, he would not be catching President Bush's first pitch on Opening Night at Nationals Park. Lo Duca, of course, had been named in the Mitchell Report a few months before, so there might have been a conflict of interest, with an alleged steroid user catching a president (and former baseball owner) who had called on baseball to clean up the problem of performance-enhancing drugs.
It was the kind of sports-meets-politics story the paper loved, and naturally, it required a phone call to Kasten.
Kasten picked up the phone, and as soon as I said hello, he barked, "How did you get this number? Nobody's allowed to call my cell phone." I told him it was in our archives, and quickly sensing he hadn't appropriately terrified the new guy, Kasten dropped the joke and proceeded to give me my first experience with his special brand of no-comments - which rarely stop with a simple refusal to answer a question. And the next day, in the press dining room at Space Coast Stadium, he proceeded to tell the rest of the Nationals' beat writers how he'd messed with the kid, anyway.
The joke, as anyone who's covered Kasten knows, revealed both his personality and the act he crafted as Nationals team president. He's as accessible as any executive in sports, always willing to talk even when he, usually by his own admission, has no information about his own team he cares to reveal. Get him talking about anything else - trends around baseball, stories from his decorated past as the team president of three franchise at once - and he's a treasure trove of anecdotes. Information about his own team, not so much. But you're always welcome to try.
Kasten, you see, loves the action, relishes the fight. He walks the concourses at Nationals Park every night, putting himself in prime position to mingle with well-wishers and outspoken critics. He harbors a deep respect for reporters, particularly ones who will participate in the back-and-forth with him, even as he glories in his role as their adversary; Nationals beat writers jokingly refer to the auxiliary press box at Nationals Park as "Stan's Yelling Room," for the times when Kasten has taken media members into the room to (colorfully) set them straight on a thing or two. Even yesterday, after he announced his upcoming resignation as Nationals president, he tossed barbs at scribes - and some at himself - while walking back to the home clubhouse.
"I always keep it interesting," he said.
He also had a unique role with the Nationals, one he understood well. Kasten became the team president in 2006 in something of an arranged marriage. He was part of a group bidding to buy the Nationals from MLB, who awarded the team to the Lerner family with the stipulation they would name Kasten the team president.
Right away, the former Braves team president had work to do. He was heavily involved in the construction of Nationals Park, just over a decade after the Braves had converted Atlanta's Olympic Stadium into Turner Field. He helped hire Manny Acta as manager at the end of his first year with the team, directed a cleanup of its front office following the Carlos Alvarez scandal during the spring of 2009 and sat in front of reporters as the team fired Acta at the 2009 All-Star break. He was there as GM Mike Rizzo hammered out not one, but two, record-breaking contracts for Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with Scott Boras, one of Kasten's favorite nemeses.
But Kasten's most basic role was something other than that. He was there to be the public face of criticism, the guard dog for a new ownership group, taking the blame every time something went awry and peddling hope in his point-by-point style. He often said he didn't mind being "the village idiot" for now, and goes away professing a belief the team is "poised to really take off."
He took his fair share of heat for inviting Phillies fans to Nationals Park for the team's home opener in 2009, and did so again this year when busloads of fans came from Philadelphia and packed the ballpark on Opening Day. Critics labeled Kasten as being out of touch with fans, unconcerned with building goodwill in Washington if it meant sacrificing dollars in the short-term. Even in those moments, though, he never hid from his detractors.
Kasten is known around the game as being far more helpful to reporters when they're not trying to extract information about his own team, and that's no surprise. He hinted yesterday he might be more forthright with his opinions once he's not working for the team. But in Washington, he knew he had a job to do, a role to play.
That doesn't mean he didn't care. After the Washington Times laid off its entire sports staff at the end of 2009, Kasten left a voice mail wishing me well, and said to let him know if he could help in any way. I returned the call, telling him not to worry about me, because I had something else in the works. I couldn't tell him about coming to MASN yet, but several times since then, I've kicked myself for missing a golden opportunity to parrot one of Kasten's favorite lines back to him: "There are things going on behind the scenes that I want to tell you about. I just can't yet."
He's on his way out the door now, perhaps to the same job with another team, perhaps to the commissioner's office, perhaps back to the NBA, perhaps to nothing at all. But if I were betting on it, I bet Kasten turns up somewhere.
Why? Because he loves playing the role, and he loves the action. And as much as anything else, he loves the fight.