Family Business Looks to Expand

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 4, 2005

When Theodore N. Lerner was a young man growing up on Fifth Street in Northwest, he would walk several blocks to Griffith Stadium, where the future real estate mogul took a job as an usher because he couldn't afford to buy a ticket to watch the Senators.

"I didn't have the money for admission in those days -- I think it was less than 50 cents a ticket -- so I took a job as an usher to get in," Lerner said. "My dream was some day to be the owner of the team."

After three decades of failed attempts to buy a Major League Baseball team, Lerner, 79, is now the closest he has ever been to fulfilling his dream. He and his close-knit family, who operate a vast real estate empire in the Washington region, are among the leading contenders of the eight bidders for the Washington Nationals.

"After the heartbreak of seeing our Senators leave the city twice, I never thought that I'd ever see big league baseball return to D.C. in my lifetime," Lerner said. "Now that it is back, I am deeply committed to assuring that it remains here, is played in a first-class facility which people can enjoy, and is operated in a way that brings the community a common source of pride and joy that serves as a community bond. I hope this will be a lasting legacy I can leave to my family and to the community where I was born and raised."

Lerner's comments, which came in an e-mail response to written questions this week, are the most extensive he has made in public since he bid on the Nationals this year. Indeed, he has been nearly invisible in his pursuit of the team, which is consistent with the private way in which he has run the family's real estate business but which also has raised concerns among some in the area over whether he can sell himself to the local community as well as he has done with baseball.

Lerner in recent decades has either bid on, or expressed interest in, the Baltimore Orioles and San Francisco Giants but each time fell short of his goal, in some cases because he did not put enough money forward. In 1999, he lost out to Daniel Snyder for the Washington Redskins, who bid a record $800 million for the NFL franchise.

"They've always wanted to own a sports team but at the same time they wanted to make a prudent business decision," said Gary Abramson, owner of the Tower Companies, which has partnered with Lerner Enterprises on many area projects.

Baseball officials say Lerner has met the $450 million sales price on the Nationals set by the league. The league may select the new owner in time for a Nov. 16-17 owners' meeting in Milwaukee.

While some other bidders have gone on radio and TV, touted high-profile partners and showered charities with donations in the run-up to baseball's decision, the Lerners have tried to gain the league's confidence more quietly. The lone investor outside the immediate family identified so far is Fox Sports anchor James Brown, a native of Washington.

Lerner "is the real sleeper in this," said Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who publicly has come out in favor of another local group headed by businessmen Frederic V. Malek and Jeffrey D. Zients. Williams said he believes Lerner could also represent the city's interests as the team's owner.

"We do not think a political or PR campaign was the best vehicle," Lerner said. "We have approached our bid, as we do all of our business ventures, by putting forth our experience, qualifications and credibility, and then allowing for a determination to be made of whether others desire to do business with us. We would like to be judged worthy to own and operate the Nationals based on who we are and what we can offer to assure the long-term stability and success of the franchise."

'Hands-On Pride'

Lerner's reputation for discipline with money and his family-oriented business inspires confidence from officials at MLB headquarters in New York who like the idea of a single, deep-pocketed owner running the franchise.

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