The Washington chapter of the Urban Land Institute, a leading development nonprofit, gave Lerner, 90, a lifetime achievement award. The son of immigrants, Lerner grew up in Washington, served in the Army, went to George Washington University, earned a law degree and then founded real estate development giant Lerner Enterprises in 1952. But the billionaire yearned for baseball to return to the city and his family purchased the team in 2006, a year after the Nationals’ first season in Washington.
Lerner is still active in both his real estate company and baseball team, but rarely grants interviews. So his acceptance speech Thursday night offered a window into his many accomplishments, sense of humor and hopes for the Nationals.
Lerner said he was happy ULI was kind enough to schedule the event until November “thinking that I and the Nationals would be busy in late October.” He continued: “As you can imagine, I’ve come to believe in the words of former baseball commissioner Bart Giamatti: Baseball is designed to break your heart. Of course, I also believe in the words of Bob Feller: every day is a new opportunity. That’s the way life is and that’s the way baseball is.
“While the players aren’t busy right now, the rest of us have been. This morning, we were very proud to introduce Dusty Baker as the new manager of the Washington Nationals. Dusty was going to be here tonight but we couldn’t come to an agreement on the seating chart.” Lerner, on stage, laughed, as did the crowd. “I’m kidding of course. We’re excited for the Baker era to begin and hope to see you at the ballpark in April.”
Baseball runs deep in the Lerner family, especially for the patriarch. After years of struggles and losing, the Nationals blossomed into a winning franchise under Lerner, and the front office led by General Manager Mike Rizzo. But the taste of victory — division titles in 2012 and 2014 — has also been accompanied by disappointment — 2013 and, especially, the 2015 season that included a team-record payroll of $165 million but no playoffs.
“Even the challenges of owning the team are a joy because over 70 years ago I ushered Senator games at Griffith Stadium,” Lerner said. “I couldn’t afford the admission price, which was about 25 cents at the time. I never could’ve dreamed of owning a baseball team. And I never could’ve imagine over my life that I would build over 20
0 million square feet of commercial and residential space and that very few people would know my name. I guess I have a different approach to real estate development than Donald Trump.” Again, the crowd laughed. “And I’m fine with that,” Lerner added.
Lerner even admitted that he doesn’t speak much publicly — “you can’t get in trouble if you agree to never say anything” — but he told stories about his humble beginnings, his beloved family and career path. He started his real estate business with a $250 loan from his wife, Annette. “I promised to her I wouldn’t lose it,” he said. He joked about his vision for developing Tysons Corner in 1962 when it simply had a grocery store, log cabin and cows. “Annette said: ‘You’ve done rather well up until now and you’re going to lose it all in a cow pasture,'” Lerner said.
He thanked his children — Mark, Debra and Marla — and children-in-law — Ed Cohen and Robert Tanenbaum — who are also involved in his real estate company and the Nationals. He also spoke glowingly of his 13 grandchildren, a few of which are also in the family business. “Maybe one of these days they’ll let me retire,” he said jokingly.
Lerner also admitted that his philanthropic work — notably giving back to his alma mater and the Nationals Dream Foundation, which built the Youth Baseball Academy — has meant a lot to him. “These are gifts that we hold will build for future generations and making investments that foster a sense of community,” he said.
And finally, Lerner ended his comments with a message he said he often gives people: “Keep building, in every definition of the word. Build a better city, build stronger communities and families, build for the future generations. But I’ll keep working to build a better winning baseball team, too.”