The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ted Lerner was the Nats’ North Star. Their path without him is uncertain.

Ted Lerner before a 2019 game at Nationals Park. “It became very apparent: This guy’s a great American,” agent Scott Boras, who completed some of the most important contracts in club history with Lerner, said of the Nationals' founding owner. “He started from scratch. A great family man, a great community man.” (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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In late 2015, nearly a decade after he and his family purchased their hometown baseball team but before the crowning accomplishment of a World Series, Ted Lerner stood before a crowd at the National Building Museum. There, he accepted a lifetime achievement award from the Urban Land Institute, an understandable honor given how Lerner’s vast real estate empire had helped transform a region. Recognition like this was expected. The surprise of the evening: Lerner spoke, publicly and at length.

“I never could have dreamed of owning a baseball team,” he said in his speech. “And I never could have imagined over my life that I would build over 20 million square feet of commercial and residential space — and very few people would know my name. I guess I have a different approach to real estate development than Donald Trump. And I am fine with that. My philosophy is: You can’t get in trouble if you never say anything.”

Lerner, who died Sunday at 97, left an indelible mark on his hometown of Washington and the surrounding region — and that would have been true had he never bought the fledgling Washington Nationals from the stewardship of Major League Baseball in 2006. But his remarks at his own feting were defining: In 17 seasons of owning the Nats, Lerner was the franchise’s unquestioned North Star — from which everything important emanated but almost nothing was heard.

Ted Lerner, real estate magnate and Nationals owner, dies at 97

Lerner’s speech at the National Building Museum came on the day the Nationals introduced Dusty Baker as the sixth manager on Lerner’s watch. Two years later, Baker was out. The club tapped Dave Martinez as the seventh manager. When the news conference ended, I made like a basketball defender between Lerner and the door. Did he have time to talk about the decision to move on from Baker — who won 95 and 97 games and two division titles in his two seasons — and land on Martinez?

“I usually say no,” Lerner said. He was impossibly polite. And as he moved closer to the door — no more reporters, please — he agreed to answer a few questions. It felt like a victory. In fact, his answers were gracious but not illuminating. You can’t get in trouble if you never say anything.

That was something of the hallmark of Lerner’s stewardship of the Nationals: We knew his story — growing up in Washington, working as an usher at old Griffith Stadium for Senators games, serving the Army stateside in World War II, graduating from George Washington University and its law school on the GI Bill, borrowing $250 from wife Annette to buy his first property, developing Tysons Corner from a cow pasture to a region-altering commerce center, on and on, through three children and nine grandchildren and billions of dollars. When he and his family convinced then-commissioner Bud Selig that they should win the right to buy the Nationals for $450 million, a private man had a very public job — even if his desire was to keep the lowest profile possible.

“It became very apparent: This guy’s a great American,” super agent Scott Boras told me a few years ago. “He started from scratch. A great family man, a great community man.”

Given the deals Boras did with Ted Lerner personally — Jayson Werth and Max Scherzer most prominently, Rafael Soriano and Matt Wieters just to make sure no stone was left unturned — he would know. The rest of us were left to … not really guess, but without personal interaction and frank analysis about the reasons behind decisions, he remained a stoic puzzle.

So we learned about him and his style through others. He may not have explained himself publicly. But he was involved. When Lerner entered the club of MLB ownership, he spent time calling other owners, wondering why they did this or didn’t do that.

“Over the years you have some owners who are less engaged, less sort of intellectually curious about how it all works, how to run it as they might run their own companies that led to their success,” San Francisco Giants President and CEO Larry Baer told me in 2019. “Some of them are like, ‘Okay, baseball, whatever, and we’ll just enjoy the recognition, the community benefit of it.’ He really wanted to see it and understand it as a business.”

But he absolutely would not run it in a way that differed from how he ran his other business. In early 2007, when the World Series seemed distant and a belief in the buildup of a still-new baseball team required mostly blind faith, Lerner sat on a panel at his alma mater. He had owned the Nationals for all of six months. That they would sign Werth for $126 million or Scherzer for $210 million and commit to a top-10 payroll in baseball several seasons in a row not only didn’t seem feasible. It seemed unlikely.

“What concerns us most is the free agency signings which have occurred in the last 90 days,” Lerner told the audience. “It could take baseball out of control.”

When the panel broke up, Lerner’s son, Mark, stood to the side and talked about his father’s adjustment from real estate tycoon to owner of a baseball team. “He checks every expense sheet,” Mark said, “because that’s how you find out where mistakes are being made.”

That was, at least in those early years, the hallmark of Lerner’s ownership, particularly internally. No purchase was too small to scrutinize. Did this package really need to be sent via FedEx? Why did a utility infielder need so many bats? Does a minor league coaching staff really need two stopwatches? Those are real questions asked of staff.

During my years on the Nationals beat, I never had a single sit-down interview with Lerner. One day before batting practice at RFK Stadium, I found myself standing next to him in the dugout. His curiosity was obvious. “How do you think we’re doing with everything?” he asked, genuinely. He was prepared to be patient with the Nationals’ plan to build, and that was wise. But he wasn’t afraid to seek opinions, even if he ultimately dismissed them.

In the fall of 2019, when his Nationals were on the cusp of their crowning achievement, it seemed like the time for a full-blown profile story. Lerner declined — again — to speak with me. But his children — Mark and his sisters Debra Cohen and Marla Tanenbaum, all among Nats ownership — agreed to chat. Ted Lerner valued his family above all else. In talking to Mark in particular over the years, it was clear how much the son revered his father.

“He’s the most patient person I know,” Mark said that day in October 2019. “For a man of his age to say, ‘Let’s do it right; you have to be patient’ — to me it’s extraordinary.”

For owner Ted Lerner, Nationals’ World Series berth is a family celebration

That makes this last chapter a little jarring. At the point of Lerner’s death, the Lerner family is at least exploring a sale of the team. In looking back on my notes from that story before the World Series, there was a common theme: Ted Lerner builds things to hold on to them. He’s not a real estate flipper. He’s a real estate developer. The long view is the only view.

Go back to that speech from the honor at the National Building Museum.

“I think everything I’ve worked for is about striving for excellence and building for future generations,” Lerner said that night. “In that way, it’s not about the properties at all. It’s about community. It’s about the future. We seek to build great projects that make their surroundings better.”

Yet so many people familiar with the Lerners’ recent discussions believe Ted was pushing for a sale. So … what now?

Ted Lerner, patient builder and developer, is gone. The Nationals, in their current form, don’t represent “great projects that make their surroundings better.” The club has lost the voice that was rarely heard in public but that most stridently determined its direction in private. A sad day for the Lerner family could be a confusing one for fans of their team. The next steps are uncertain, and they will be taken without the man who emphatically guided the team’s path to this point.