Before heading to Florida for spring training in about a week, Mark Lerner spoke to a group of college students interested in careers in sports at his alma mater in Washington on Friday afternoon. The team’s principal owner sat before them for nearly half an hour in the auditorium at the Media and Public Affairs Building at George Washington University, telling his family’s story of how they came to own a baseball team in their hometown, built it into a winning team after so much losing and little talent, and how passionate he is about baseball.
Afterward, Lerner addressed a handful of issues about the Nationals, from Major League Baseball’s investigation of players such as Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez to the team’s rising payroll to the ever-ongoing dispute with Mid-Atlantic Sports Network to General Manager Mike Rizzo’s contract future.
Two weeks ago, Gonzalez was linked to a South Florida clinic, Biogenesis, that was, according to a Miami New Times report, allegedly providing players such as him, Alex Rodriguez and Melky Cabrera with performance-enhancing drugs. MLB officials have been investigating the clinic and its chief, Anthony Bosch, and links to players. Gonzalez has denied the allegations and any connection to Bosch. The Nationals have also been quiet on the matter.
Lerner said the investigation is in baseball’s hands. Asked if the team was caught off guard by the news of Gonzalez’s alleged connection, Lerner answered: “I think anytime you hear something like that out of the blue you’re blindsided. Again, I would hope that people are innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around. We have great confidence in Gio. He’s a great guy and hopefully baseball will clear him.”
Concerning the ongoing dispute with the Orioles, who control the majority of MASN, Lerner said the matter, too, is in baseball’s hands. The deadlock over how much the Nationals’ television rights are worth has dragged on since the end of the 2011 season. A committee made up of executives from three baseball teams has been weighing the matter, and Commissioner Bud Selig even sought a creative solution to seek buyers for the network.
“We’re hoping that the Commissioner and baseball make a decision soon,” said Lerner after he spoke at the Sports Industry Networking and Career (SINC) Conference. “It’s really out of our hands now. And hopefully he’ll make the right decisions.”
For the first time in the team’s history, next year’s payroll will be higher than $100 million, closer to $120 million, and among the top 10 in the major leagues. Lerner said in past years the team exercised a self-imposed salary cap. This season, however, team executives and owners saw an opportunity to win. Adding closer Rafael Soriano (two years, $28 million) and veteran starter Dan Haren (one year, $13 million) were conscious decisions to add proven, but more expensive, players to an already talented team to try to win a title.
“It was a combination of factors this year,” he said. “We have young people obviously that were extended and those payroll numbers have gone up. We have a team that we think is on the brink of something special and we wanted to add a few more parts. I think its just a moment in time. It’s very possible and very likely that the payroll would probably go down. We just try to be smart about it depending on where we are in the world.”
Even before the addition of Soriano, the Nationals were already viewed as a World Series contender. Earlier in the winter, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said it was “World Series or bust” for next season’s team, his final season before retiring from managing. Lerner, however, took a more subdued tone than his manager.
“I think as a franchise if you don’t shoot for the stars you’re in the wrong business,” he said. “We would love to make it to the World Series but we gotta make the playoffs first and you gotta have good health. If we stay healthy, I’m very confident we’ll have a real shot at the playoffs. Where we go from there who knows. … Davey is a unique individual and God bless him, but I’ll take the more conservative route.”
During his speech to the students and in a later question-and-answer period, Lerner spoke glowingly of Rizzo and his work helping assemble a staff that changed the Nationals’ fortunes. Rizzo signed a five-year contract extension after the 2010 season, but only the first three years of his contract are guaranteed and the final two years — 2014 and 2015 — are option years that can be exercised by the team.
“There’s no doubt in our mind that we’ll end up having a very long relationship,” Lerner said. “We haven’t talked contract or anything. He has a lot of time to go. But I’m sure that one day if Mike wants to be here, he’ll be here.”
Nationals players begin reporting to spring training camp in Viera beginning Tuesday and there’s still little clarity on the team’s future spring training site. The team has long wanted to move out of Brevard County because of its somewhat remote location and long bus rides to Grapefruit League games. Team officials have negotiated with Lee County about a vacant stadium in Fort Myers, on the west coast of the state, but the county’s budget constraints have slowed talks.
“We have an obligation in Viera,” Lerner said. “We’re looking at all of our options. I met with many different cities over the offseason. … We want to find the right place for us and our fans. We can’t rush it. Again, it’s a small moment in time but I’m very confident that in 2013 we’ll sign a deal with someplace and when we move I don’t the answer to that. Brevard County has been a great home for us; wonderful people. But as they know, the geography is a problem. … Now we’re a pretty popular commodity. A lot of cities want us. We’ll it play out and see where the best place is for us.”