The New Owner Is Old School

"I did not know I was such a man of mystery," said newly named Nationals principal owner Theodore Lerner of his alleged reclusiveness. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, May 4, 2006

A billionaire can still hit the lottery.

Or, as Ted Lerner put it after becoming the new owner of the Nationals yesterday, "This is a 'wow' kind of day."

Everyone will have their own first impressions of Lerner, one of the few American tycoons who has seldom been seen by the general public and has shunned the limelight for decades. Mine will be of his undisguised joy.

"This is 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," said Lerner, sitting in his office surrounded by several of his partners, including his 52-year-old son Mark.

"Things still stick in my mind. I was there when Dizzy Dean was hit in the foot [by a line drive] in the all-star game," continued Lerner, remembering the famous accident that damaged the rest of Dean's career. "[I go] way back. Saw Lou Gehrig play, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. . . . I was at the 73-0 game [when the Redskins lost the '40 NFL title game to the Bears]. I was an usher in left field in Griffith Stadium. I turned around and it was 21-0. That was the slaughter of all time."

For many, the surprise about Lerner, as he spoke at a televised news conference yesterday evening, is that he seems utterly normal. "I did not know I was such a man of mystery," he said. And you believe him. He just looks like a guy who hates snooty cocktail parties and has a couple billion reasons he never has to go to another one. At 80, he looks so fit and formidable you mistake him for 70. His foursquare features don't evoke "rich," but rather "ex-middleweight." His fortune came from his gazillion buildings and malls. Who knew he would look like he'd hammered them together himself?

It takes no imagination at all to see him as a teenage usher at a Redskins game or as a father spending key moments with his family at a Senators game. The stretch would be to imagine him at some fancy function flashing his wealth.

With his law degree from George Washington, Lerner may not see this as a compliment, but one of the charms of his first news conference was to hear a couple of hardscrabble, son-of-immigrants pronunciations worthy of his D.C. background. He said he wanted to run the Nationals properly so he can "leave sum'em important to be my legacy to future generations." Maybe a guy who still says "sum'em" -- and doesn't care -- is probably more likely to leave "something" of value behind him.

"We will not let you down," he concluded, in the same tone he might have said, "The roof we build will not fall down."

After our introductions yesterday, the first thing Lerner did was to lean over and say quietly, "I'm really not like Howard Hughes." And he's not. So you can see why the description probably bugs him. He has his friends, family, GW ties, philanthropies, a synagogue, a love of sports and a business empire. Why would he need to polish an image and pal up to D.C. pols?

In a quiet setting, without TV lights, Lerner has a composed, almost genial face that you might associate with a successful doctor or teacher rather than a mogul. He doesn't look for occasions to smile, but welcomes them when they arrive. He'd rather listen to a story than tell one -- by a lot. Whatever fires of ambitions drove him to turn a D.C. high school education and a law degree into (ballpark guess) a couple of billion dollars have long since receded into an unthreatening but confident demeanor. He's assertive when he commands the floor, but gladly lets others have their say. You could imagine him getting mad, but not often. How many would want to cross him? He seems as eminently at ease as we all wish to be at such an age. Maybe the money helps, but it doesn't seem to be the cause. Oh, and one other first thing. Right now, he's very, very happy.

Why? Not just because he won the 17-month contest to grab the Nats, though that's enormous to him. "This was our last chance," Lerner said. When did he know he'd finally get his turn at bat after trying to buy other baseball teams for Washington, and bidding for the Redskins when Daniel Snyder bought them? "This morning, 11:30," he said. "The commissioner called."

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