Nats Principal Owner Mark Lerner was in Florida last week, speaking at a special meeting of the Osceola County Board of Commissioners about the possibility of a new spring training home.
His speech was likely written in advance, and in any case, it came before the weekend’s disappointing sweep against the Dodgers. Still, watching him state the team’s case felt like a flashback to last October, when it seemed hard to imagine anything other than greatness in Washington’s future. (It also seemed irrelevant to the discussion of a new spring training home, but I guess every bit counts.)
“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen our team play in person, but let me tell you something about them that I think is important,” Lerner said midway through his remarks. (You can watch them here.) “We have a very young team that is on its way to greatness. When we bought the Nationals, we were in the equivalent of baseball’s Death Valley: last place, with the worst record in baseball, way below sea level.
“We were at the very bottom of the Baseball America rankings. MLB had been running the franchise, and in order to put a more interesting team on the field every night, they had traded most of the talent in the team’s minor leagues for veterans who could attract fans right away. Mike Rizzo — one of the best general managers in Major League Baseball — and my family have, in a very short time, built one of the deepest farm systems in the game.
“Having to build a team from scratch was actually a mixed blessing. We wanted to build a contender, but we wanted to do it right away. We wanted to assemble a long-term competitive team that would become more interesting every season, and we wanted to build it on sound baseball and business practices. We were honest with our fans about that from the start. That was our promise at our first press conference.
“Mike was aggressive and smart. We had some good luck in the draft, we made some well-timed trades and a few free agent signings, and he brought us back to respectability. We knew we had to do it right, and patience was the key word. Our patience was rewarded last season, when the Nationals won their division, the National League East, with the best record in baseball.
“Last season sparked a love affair between our fans and the team, and it continues to grow with each passing game. We feel that our rebuilding process is actually ahead of schedule from what we initially envisioned, both on the field and in rebuilding our farm system. We’re very proud of the players on the Major League and Minor League rosters, and we’re looking forward to many years of talented players coming throughout Osceola.
“Now let me tell you a little bit about our fans,” he continued. “We expect thousands of Nationals fans to travel from the Washington area to Osceola each spring to watch the team play and enjoy the beautiful weather. Last year alone, the number of trips to spring training, to our facility in Viera, was up 200 percent.
“But it wasn’t easy to get to this point. We had to work it out when it came to bringing back fans to baseball. We’d lost a whole generation of fans since the Senators left in 1971, and we had to strategize different ways to make up for the lost time. We focused on families right away, and the young kids they were raising, in hopes of making them Nationals fans for life. We also made an effort to focus on our military audience. So many members of the military come through town for a few years at a time, or don’t necessarily come from cities that have a Major League team. We wanted to be their home team, and when they moved on, to take their love of the Nationals with them. We further believe our military program is the best of any United States professional sports team.”
Lerner went on to discuss many of the team’s community service efforts in D.C., promising a similar commitment to Osceola.
“We think Osceola will provide a great home for spring training and the National Pastime,” he said. “It’s our hope that a new ballpark, combined with our exciting young team, will bring thousands of baseball fans through town, and we’re pleased to be a part of that future.”
(The image above shows some of the commissioners while Lerner was talking about his team.)