Now, This Was a Tough Week

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, July 14, 2008

The Nationals have had quite a week.

First, they were hit with the news that they have the smallest local TV audience in baseball, less than a third of the next-to-last team -- only 9,000 TV households, according to Nielsen data.

Next, The Post reported that the team's owners have refused to pay $3.5 million in rent to the District, claiming the club's publicly financed park is not "substantially complete," even though it's certainly in excellent working order for making money. The case might end up in binding arbitration with the team demanding $100,000 per day in damages since March 1 -- a total of more than $13 million and counting.

The Internet lit up with fan fury. How could the Lerner family be such ingrates? Didn't the District just build them a ballpark, on time and on budget, then hand them the keys?

Lost in the fuss was a central point. Baseball got a sweetheart deal in the $611 million ballpark. But the Lerners certainly did not. They paid full price. The guarantee of a new Washington park quadrupled the value of the Montreal Expos franchise. So, for $450 million, the Lerners got both the lousy Expos and a brand new park. Both were included in the $450 million price.

The real windfall winners were baseball's 29 other owners who immediately split up the Lerners' money. They're still chuckling. It's so profitable being part of a sanctioned monopoly.

But the Lerners aren't laughing. Having spent about a half-billion dollars for the Nats, including more than $40 million in their own voluntary improvements to the new park, the team owners want -- indeed, demand -- exactly the park they paid for. Right down to the last carpet and leak-free umpires' room. Their punch list: 22,000 items.

Of course, maybe they're counting each nail individually.

The District needs to understand that the Lerners are like a family that builds a house. Even after you move in there are plenty of details that have to be completed before you write your last check to the builder. Otherwise, you're a sucker.

Is Nationals Park "substantially complete," a legal term? Who knows? But if you walk around Nationals Park, you see plenty of unfinished details. In the Lerners' case, they can't get directly at the park's builders, CHS, to nag them because the construction contract is with the District, not the team. So the Lerners' leverage is to refuse to pay D.C.

"Nobody could have done what Clark Construction did to get this done [by Opening Day]. It was a modern miracle," principal owner Mark Lerner said yesterday. Then he began to recite an endless number of punch list and quality control items that are driving his family nuts.

Hello, Earth to Lerners, we have a disconnect.

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