Nationals Principal Owner Mark Lerner sat in the team’s dugout yesterday morning, about two hours before the first pitch of the season at Nationals Park. The team he presides over has finally produced high expectations, and of the coming season he said, “I hope all the hype turns into reality.”
As a baseball owner, this spring brought a momentous development: the sale of the Dodgers for $2 billion to a group headed by Magic Johnson and former Nationals President Stan Kasten. Lerner was asked what that said about the value of the Nationals and what it means for baseball overall.
“I have no idea how valuable it is, and I really don’t care,” Lerner said of the team. “It’s not something we’re ever going to get rid of.
“I think what it says about baseball, baseball has never been in better shape. Commissioner [Bud] Selig has done a marvelous job over his tenure. It’s incredible how far baseball has come in the last 15 years. It’s just going to continue to grow. It’s just a great game. There’s something about baseball that no other sport has. It bonds people – fathers and sons and fathers and daughters, mothers and daughters. It’s great.”
Lerner grew close to Kasten during his five years running the Nationals, and they remain close, even if Kasten sometimes bristled about the frequency with which Nationals ownership took his advice. When the Dodgers announced the sale, Lerner reached out.
“Oh, yeah,” Lerner said. “I emailed him as he was in New York signing the papers. I heard, and I went right to my email. He instantly emailed me back. It was a very appreciative note and how happy I was for him. I’m really looking forward to seeing him in Los Angeles in two weeks, to get together and catch up. He’s one of my favorite people. He’s a good friend. He was very helpful to my family and myself. I wish him nothing but the best of luck.”
There is one way Kasten could have an impact on the future of the Nationals. He hired many of the Nationals’ front office officials while he was in Washington. Lerner said Kasten’s departure included no provisions that prohibit Kasten from hiring Nationals employees in the future.
After Kasten took over as Nationals’ team president, he made General Manager Mike Rizzo his very first hire, poaching him from the Arizona Diamondbacks and naming him an assistant general manager. Rizzo is regarded as one of baseball’s top executives in the scouting and player development field, which Kasten views as a high priority in running a franchise.
It is doubtful, people close to Rizzo say, that he would be willing to work under Kasten again. They have a friendly relationship, but Rizzo has full control of the Nationals’ baseball operations and would not enjoy the same autonomy under Kasten, even if the Dodgers gave him the title of “president.” And Rizzo is happy in Washington.
Lerner said he was not worried about the lack of contractual protection from Kasten hiring Nationals executives.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Lerner said. “Stan is an honorable man. He wouldn’t do that. If the shoe was on the other foot, we wouldn’t do that to him.”
After the 2010 season, Rizzo signed a five-year contract extension that made him an executive vice president, keeping him in Washington through 2015. Lerner said he had not considered broaching the idea of another extension, but he raved about Rizzo’s performance.
“I don’t think that’s a good discussion for today,” Lerner said. “Everybody is in a good place right now. When the time comes, I’m sure we’ll have discussions with Mike. But the ink isn’t even dry on the original one yet.
“He’s done a marvelous job. Everybody around baseball realizes that. The moves that he’s made have been wonderful. Certainly, now we’ve reached a level with our farm system – the Gio [Gonzalez] trade was something we couldn’t do a year ago. It was a very bold move on his part and, obviously, convincing us that’s something we should do. We couldn’t have done that a year ago.
“Our relationship is outstanding. He has great knowledge of the game. He’s wonderful in explaining what his thought process is. We’re still learning, too. You learn something new every day. I know our relationship will be long and prosperous.”
Perhaps the most significant current business issue for the Nationals is their ongoing negotiations with MASN over televisions rights fees. Lerner did not address the negotiations or their importance. “It’s not something I can comment on,” he said.
Lerner said the Nationals have made “substantial increases” in ticket sales, for season ticket packages and “all price ranges.”
“Ticket sales are really doing very, very well,” Lerner said. “All winter long, there’s been a big buzz around town. I think getting off to a good start even ignited that even a little bit more. They crave a winner. We want the same thing. Hopefully we get a lot curly Ws this year.”