Lerner group is a solid choice

Originally Published: May 3, 2006
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Our long Nationals nightmare is over. The seemingly endless search for an owner for the Washington Nationals mercifully ended with the awarding of the team to developer Theodore Lerner. Although the franchise's development has been set back at least a year and a half thanks to the frolics of the D.C. City Council and the reluctance of Major League Baseball to act quickly on this issue, now the team can start moving forward.

Ted Lerner is a good choice. He is a tough, honest, reputable businessman whose company, among other ventures, built shopping malls in the Washington metropolitan area. He is a local guy. That might not be important in the sale of some sports franchises, but it was extremely important for baseball in Washington, given that two of its owners -- Calvin Griffith and Bob Short -- took their teams out of the nation's capital for greener, as in money, pastures. "Baseball wavered on a lot matters in this sale, but it never wavered on that -- local ownership was always very, very important," said a source close to the situation.

Stan Kasten
AP Photo/Haraz N. GhanbariStan Kasten, a former team president for the Atlanta Braves, is the new club president for the Washington Nationals.
Lerner's business is family-run, which commissioner Bud Selig has always preferred; his family ran the Milwaukee Brewers. Lerner is the principal owner, the only person MLB needs to call -- rather than multiple owners -- when the checks need to be signed, which also was attractive to Selig. Lerner is a private man, but Selig likes that kind of owner, such as John Fetzer, who owned the Tigers with a quiet dignity many years ago. Anyway, Lerner has his front man in Stan Kasten, who was the Braves' president for years and understands the inner workings of the game. When Kasten, a confidant to Selig, officially joined Lerner's group in the last month, it helped Selig make the final decision.

"The Lerner group won because it didn't make any major mistakes," said a source involved in the negotiations. "They didn't engage in any mudslinging. They did what they were told by baseball. They did less wrong than the rest. Sometimes, that's how to win."

An equally good choice would have been the Malek-Zients group, which was the group that -- in the last six years -- did more than any other to bring baseball back to Washington. Most of the members are local, and it had the most diversified group of investors, including minorities, led by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The other group (of eight) that lost out was the one headed by Jeff Smulyan, who is good friends with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who had significant input in the choosing of an owner. But Smulyan is from Indianapolis, and despite gathering an impressive group of local investors, he was considered an outsider from the start, which hurt his chances.

So, finally, the 20-month ordeal is close to being over. When Lerner takes over, the Nationals can begin to operate like a real major league team, not one owned by MLB and its 29 owners. Since moving from Montreal after the 2004 season, the Nats have operated under nearly every possible disadvantage. They have a substandard ballpark; RFK Stadium opened for baseball in 1962. They have a terrible radio/TV contract; most of their games are not on TV for the majority of homes in the D.C. area, thanks mostly to Comcast's refusal to televise the games (the FCC is looking into it, and there's a chance Comcast will be ordered to televise Nats' games). The Nationals haven't been able to market the team properly because of the uncertainty of the situation: Until the D.C. government and MLB agreed on a lease agreement for a new stadium, there was a chance, however slight, that the Nationals wouldn't be in Washington long term. They operated with a $55 million payroll last season and got only a slight increase this year. They were not active in offseason free-agent bidding because they didn't have their own money to spend.

Washington is a major league city. It had major league baseball for 72 uninterrupted years with the Senators. It was proved again last year when the Nats drew 2.7 million fans -- by far the most in the history of Washington baseball. RFK literally shook as the team remarkably led the division at the All-Star break, then contended for a playoff spot until the final two weeks of the season. The team has struggled this year, and attendance and season-ticket plans are down slightly, mainly because it was a rudderless team that hasn't gotten the support it needs from MLB, or the city, to compete with the rest of the teams in the game.

All of that is over with the awarding of the team to Lerner. Oh, it's not going to be easy for him. Certain members of the D.C. City Council, led by former mayor Marion Barry, vow to make the transition difficult on Lerner, who Barry claims just "rented" minority investors to get the team. However, we're told no one, but no one, pushes around Ted Lerner.

The first year and one month of existence for the Nationals was just practice. Now, the franchise officially begins. Now, the team has an owner who will spend money on, among other things, player development and marketing, which will include getting more games on TV. From all indications, Lerner is going to do it right, and he has every intention of building a champion. In 2008, the Nats are scheduled to open a $611 million ballpark on the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington. The hope is that the area will be developed as well as the area on which the Verizon Center -- home of the Wizards and Capitals -- was built.

By then, or soon after, this is going to be a model franchise, a gold mine. The Washington metropolitan area is the sixth largest in America, and it boasts the most educated work force in the country. Baseball can't miss in Washington, despite all the roadblocks and infighting. All the Nats needed was an owner. And now, finally, they have one.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

ALSO SEE