By Thomas Heath and David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
"There's only one acceptable solution," said Kasten, who ran the Braves for 17 years. "And that is all the games to be on Comcast with no exceptions. I can't tell you exactly when, but we will get there."
Kasten, who will oversee the day-to-day operation of the ballclub, outlined a "global vision" to turn the franchise around. The team has one of the worst records in baseball, plays in a 44-year-old stadium and has a farm system in disarray after years of neglect. The Nationals are averaging 24,928 in paid attendance this season, but the actual number of fans in the stands has been far fewer most games.
"We are going to become the next big sports phenomenon," Kasten said. "And when we succeed, because every country in the world which plays baseball has a media presence here, we will be a phenomenon not just nationally, but internationally."
Kasten said Nationals fans should not expect quick results. "Number one, you build a team from the ground up with player development," he said. "Two, you focus on the fan's experience from the minute they leave their home until the minute they leave the stadium. And third, you completely immerse the team in the community."
Kasten refused to be drawn out on whether he planned any immediate changes in personnel, but he said the new ownership will begin its work as soon as the sale is approved by the 29 other league owners, who meet in New York May 17-18.
City officials and developers who own land near the new baseball stadium said the Lerners' vast real estate experience will help in the plans to develop the more than 50 acres around the stadium into a vibrant mix of offices, housing and retail.
"Having someone with development experience and retail experience like the Lerners will be helpful in creating a lively, day and night area that will draw people 365 days a year from the Metro down to the waterfront area," said Adrian G. Washington, president and chief executive of the Anacostia Waterfront Corp., a quasi-government agency that is overseeing the redevelopment efforts.
"With Lerner, we've got someone who gets it," Washington said. "They understand how to create projects that work. We will work together and talk with them."
While the Nationals are the first team the Lerners have been successful in purchasing, they have been at the bidding process for three decades, most recently finishing second to Daniel M. Snyder when he bought the Washington Redskins in 1999 for $800 million. The Lerners tried to buy the Baltimore Orioles many years ago, and they considered buying the San Francisco Giants in 1976 with the intention of moving them to Washington. "This was our last chance," Ted Lerner said.
Speaking at a news conference last evening at the Fairmont hotel in the District, Lerner said he wanted to repair relations with District leaders, who have expressed unease about baseball's choice of the Lerner family over its leading rival, a group led by prominent Washington businessmen Frederic V. Malek and Jeffrey Zients. Some District politicians in recent days accused the Lerners of tokenism by taking on additional minorities as investors in an effort to win ownership of the team.
Lerner said he had spent the better part of the day speaking by telephone with District officials, including Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D. C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp (D). Two of the family's biggest critics, council members Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), attended the news conference to offer their congratulations to the family and their investors. Barry and Orange even posed for pictures with the Lerner group.
"The fact that he called and reached out, that's what we've been looking for," Orange said. "That's a good sign, a good beginning. . . . I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt because we have a lot of money on the line with the new stadium."
CBS sportscaster James Brown, who is a Lerner investor and a Washington native, said he accepted the olive branch that Barry and Orange extended by attending last night's news conference.
"I would have expected it from them," Brown said. "I told them, 'No harm. No foul.' I told Marion Barry that all of his life he has been pushing for this kind of participation in the economic pie for those who have been disenfranchised. And this is what the Lerner family represents. So I knew that he knew his comments were baseless."
Williams, who had backed the Malek-led bid, extended an olive branch as well. "The fans, the District government and most of all the team need the stability of a single owner," Williams said in a written statement. "Ted Lerner was born and raised in the District, attended high school and college here, and grew up watching the Washington Senators. I spoke with Ted Lerner today after he was awarded the team and I firmly believe he will make an excellent owner and a good partner."
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who also supported the Malek-Zients group, said, "My advice to Ted Lerner himself is to be as available as possible in next two weeks, to really be available to meet with the council and mayor . . . whatever the avenue is to make himself known."
Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.