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In Signature Style, Lerners Strive To Make Ballpark Fan-Friendly

By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

If fans entering Nationals Park for the first time tomorrow feel like tourists, then the Lerner family will have accomplished what it set out to do: Create a new attraction in the nation's capital.

The owners of the Washington Nationals, determined to place their signature on the $611 million baseball stadium designed and paid for by the city, have used every opportunity to link the ballpark to iconic Washington.

They planted cherry trees along the left-field wall, changed a beer stand's name to the Beltway Bar -- complete with decorations fit for a presidential inauguration -- and highlighted the city's baseball history with a flag commemorating Washington's only World Series win, by the Senators in 1924.

The Lerners hope to attract large ballpark crowds, starting with tomorrow's exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles, and get them to spend money by drawing on three decades of experience developing some of the region's best-known malls and office centers.

They have installed an enormous flat-screen television just inside gates on the north side that will show players on the field before the game, allowing fans to ask them questions. A few steps away will be a children's area, with a jungle gym and PlayStation 3 zone. And a full-service restaurant will overlook center field.

Every element of decor, including handcrafted masonry behind home plate, historic baseball posters and paint color, was a careful Lerner decision.

"We were given a great footprint, but the place didn't have a personality," said Mark Lerner, son of Bethesda real estate magnate Theodore N. Lerner, who heads the ownership group. "That's what we've tried to do in the past months, give it personality."

Mark Lerner, who has taken the lead on the ballpark planning, said the family has spent more than $50 million on upgrades, which include a high-definition scoreboard.

By the time the Lerner group bought the team for $450 million two years ago, the city had selected the 21-acre site for the ballpark and signed off on the main architectural plans. The day after Major League Baseball selected the Lerners as the team's owner, they held the groundbreaking ceremony for the ballpark. Family members began traveling to most of the other stadiums in the country and started to map out what they could add to Nationals Park.

Some things were small, aesthetic touches, such as planting flowers behind the outfield wall and putting a decorative scrim on the back of the scoreboard. Other changes were more prominent. The Lerners upgraded plans for the Red Porch restaurant, which will offer full table service and overlook the outfield, a trend hitting some big ballparks.

Nationals President Stan Kasten pushed for the restaurant and is working on pregame entertainment.

Sunday's season opening game against the Atlanta Braves will feature a Dixieland band, face painting for children and the chance to watch batting practice. The Lerners are planning similar events before other home games. At 47-year-old RFK, where the Nationals played for three seasons, fans had little to do except watch the game and little to spend their money on.

"We're always trying to make as much [money] as we can to make this enterprise work," Kasten said.

As Mark Lerner led a ballpark tour this week, he said: "We need people to break the habit of coming at 7:05 for a 7:05 game. . . . It's our responsibility to do exciting things to get them to come early."

While the Lerners are focused on the fan experience, city officials view the ballpark as an economic catalyst for Southeast Washington and a key to revitalization along the Anacostia River. The dual missions and conflicting styles have created tension.

To try to control the ballpark's image, the Lerners have responded in their trademark way: with tough negotiating, a supreme sense of confidence and an attention to detail that they hope will ensure that the experience will be unequaled for fans and lucrative for them.

Image management is important to the billionaire family, whose properties include Tysons Corner buildings in Virginia, White Flint Mall in Bethesda and Washington Square in the District.

The family angered D.C. Council members for refusing to put a sign in the ballpark protesting the District's lack of a vote in Congress and because the team foundation held its fundraising gala in Prince George's County instead of the District.

Such decisions have strained the relationship between the city and the Lerners, who were virtually unknown to D.C. political leaders before they bought the team. The Lerners have also caused bruised feelings by pushing arbitration on smaller costs. At one point, the family tried to get the District to pay for the team's uniforms.

"The city paying for uniforms is ridiculous. The city made its contribution with a $611 million stadium," said council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large). He praised the Lerners for sponsoring programs for city youths, but he said the family doesn't seem to understand the importance of the vote-protest sign and of holding events in the District.

"The politicians, they have their agenda. We have our agenda. Sometimes you meet in the middle," Mark Lerner said.

How long the tension will last remains to be seen. On Sunday, the Lerners and city officials will focus on the capacity crowd of 41,888 fans expected for Opening Day.

The crowd will find a spanking-new facility and a variety of music, food and family activities unheard of at RFK.

From the paint colors in the high rollers' bars to redesigns of the women's restrooms, the Lerners have engaged in the smallest details.

Walking along the main concourse, Mark Lerner pointed at neon signs marking the concession stands, which include Nats Dogs, Boardwalk Fries and Noah's Pretzels. He said that signs at the exits thanking fans for attending are in English and Spanish.

"Those are the little touches that, when you put them together, make the difference between a regular ballpark and a great ballpark," Lerner said. "That comes from our mall background. We're always reviewing plans for stores. Everything that went into the stadium we reviewed so it fit the image we want."

Theodore Lerner has reviewed plans for parking. And his children, who help run the development business and manage the family's finances, have been involved in the ballpark and the team. His daughter Marla Tanenbaum runs the team's foundation, and his sons-in-law, Robert Tanenbaum and Edward Cohen, have been involved in negotiations with the city and in arranging for parking around the ballpark.

Team ownership has thrust the Lerners into the limelight in a way they say they are not comfortable with. "I don't think any of us are that way personality-wise," Marla Tanenbaum said. "We knew we didn't want to be upfront with it. We wanted [Kasten] to be the voice of the team. My father is not a public person."

Although the Lerners might be reticent about publicity, they view the team and ballpark as a responsibility. "This is a trust," Mark Lerner said. "It's an important thing for the city, and we take it seriously."

It is also meant to be fun. "I want to position myself near the gates on Opening Day," Lerner said. "Just to see the faces."

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