After 17 Months, Baseball Introduces Nats' Owners
Thursday, May 4, 2006
A group of area businessmen led by developer Theodore N. Lerner was awarded ownership of the Washington Nationals yesterday and pledged to build a first-class baseball organization by investing heavily in player development and working closely with the city on construction of the team's new stadium on the Anacostia waterfront.
Lerner, who has made a fortune in real estate across the Washington region over the last five decades, was informed of the decision by Major League Baseball in a telephone call from Bud Selig, the league's commissioner. It brought to a close a 17-month ownership search for the franchise that was moved to Washington from Montreal before the 2005 season.
"We're delighted to receive the opportunity to own this franchise," Lerner said in an interview shortly after speaking with Selig. "It's something I've been thinking about all my life, from the time I used to pay 25 cents to sit in the bleachers at Griffith Stadium," the former home of the Washington Senators.
Lerner, 80, was selected over seven other bidders who each had agreed to pay the $450 million sale price set by Major League Baseball, whose 29 other owners bought the struggling Montreal Expos for $120 million in February 2002.
Selig told reporters that it was the "family model" of the Lerner group and Lerner's strong roots in the Washington area that persuaded him to award them the team. Lerner will oversee a Nationals ownership group of 14 investors that includes his son Mark D. Lerner, who will run the franchise, and his sons-in-law, Edward L. Cohen and Robert K. Tanenbaum.
"The family model meant a lot to me," Selig said. "I've seen the family model work and it works well. There's continuity. There's stability. If you look back in our history, the family model works well. The family ownership was very important and the depth of their commitment to philanthropy was most impressive."
Selig also said the Lerners' recent addition of former Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten, who is well respected in baseball circles and enjoys Selig's confidence, helped tip the balance. And the commissioner offered the reclusive Lerner some advice. "I said to him this morning, 'Whether you know it or not, your life took a very dramatic turn in the public,' " Selig said. "I'm not sure he really knows it, but he'll surround himself with good people like his son and Stan Kasten."
As the city prepares to break ground today on a $611 million stadium project for the Nationals in Southeast D.C., Lerner and his partners said they are taking the long view toward the team's development. They said they wanted to build a top-quality farm system to develop homegrown baseball talent, make short-term improvements to the team's temporary home at RFK Stadium and involve themselves in the construction of the new stadium.
"Our vision is we want to do everything in a first-class manner," said Mark Lerner, who planned to join city officials and Nationals players and managers at the ceremonial groundbreaking today at the site of the new stadium complex.
Some city officials said they will seek a pledge by the Lerner group to pay for improvements to the stadium, including ensuring that two parking garages that, under current plans, would sit just beyond the outfield are moved below ground. Mark Lerner did not pledge to pay for those costs or any others on the stadium. He and Kasten, who worked with D.C. stadium co-designer Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum Sport in Atlanta, said that they expect the city to build a top-flight stadium.
"We really do look forward to sitting down with [the architects] and the city and tweaking their plans a little bit," Lerner said. "You don't want to make the same mistakes [others have made]. We're going to take all that input and continue to go to the stadiums that we haven't seen, and hopefully we'll get suggestions to build the best stadium we can."
Kasten said the Lerner group plans to wade into the dispute over broadcast rights between Comcast and the Baltimore Orioles-owned Mid-Atlantic Sports Network that is preventing more than a million Comcast subscribers from receiving most Nationals games on television.