“Can you believe this, Dad?” Debra asked.
Ted Lerner isn’t loquacious. He isn’t boisterous. He presents as stoic. People who watch games with him describe him as inquisitive but even-keeled, reacting not to a specific bounce but more interested in how it fits in the larger picture. At that moment, since his family officially took over the Nationals in July 2006, he had presided over 2,168 regular season games and 28 more in the postseason. He had closed old RFK Stadium and opened a new ballpark. He had hired and fired managers. This is what it built to.
“It’s just amazing,” Lerner said to his daughter. “I’m so happy.”
It was his 94th birthday.
“Pure joy,” Debra said last week.
“It’s indescribable the happiness we saw on his face,” Mark Lerner said.
The Nationals’ upcoming appearance in the World Series — a first for this franchise, the first for Washington in 86 years — means so many different things to so many different people. For the players, just a handful of whom have reached this point, it’s a professional peak — with possibility still ahead. For the fans, so many of whom have suffered through previous October disappointments — not to mention 33 years without any baseball team at all — it is a potent cocktail of adrenaline and emotion. For General Manager Mike Rizzo and his staff, it is validation that their methods of scouting, developing and evaluating players works.
On the stage, Ted Lerner reveled in a moment that brought a kind of attention very different from the opening of a mall or development of an office building. “I want to tell our fans: This is for you,” Lerner said into a microphone, his words carrying out to those in the stands and a television audience beyond.
But for Lerner, the Nats’ pennant is about more than the fans. When the Nationals themselves had climbed down from the makeshift stage at the center of the ballfield, the trophy secured, Lerner remained atop it. Still to come were the photos he had waited for. There, then, were his wife, Annette, and his three children, his sons-in-law and daughter-in-law, his grandkids.
For Lerner, this was about family.
“He’s obviously very accomplished and very successful, super smart, very self-confident,” said Stan Kasten, the former president of the Nationals who now oversees the Los Angeles Dodgers. “But he is totally dedicated to family above all else — above all else. . . .
“Everything came down to how it worked within his family and reflected on his family. There’s nothing more important to Ted than that.”
That’s how the Lerners pursued a baseball team. That’s how they have run a baseball team. So that’s how they celebrated a pennant. With the Lerners, there are no 5-3 votes. There’s only consensus.
“It’s a family dynamic,” Rizzo said. “We make decisions as a group. There are no knee-jerk decisions, no snap judgments. It’s a deliberate process that takes the knowledge and the support of the whole family.”
This isn’t how Ted Lerner built the Nationals. It’s how Ted Lerner lives his life. He’s so disciplined that until recently, his longtime tailor kept the same waist measurement from his 30s — and now he has to take them in. He’s so pious that he won’t attend Friday night games because of the Jewish Sabbath. Those qualities are reflected in his stewardship of the Nationals.
Family first and last
By the time Major League Baseball decided to move the Montreal Expos to Washington following the 2004 season, the Lerners had flirted with sports ownership before. Mark Lerner thinks he was probably 8 when he began pestering his father, one of the most successful real estate developers in the country, about owning a team.
“I guess I’m at fault,” Mark said in an interview Friday at Nationals Park that his two sisters joined by video conference. “Since I was a little guy, I always said to my dad, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have one of our own?’ ”
Still, to pursue the town’s new baseball team, Ted and Mark couldn’t be the only Lerners on board. “It was kind of a guy thing at the time,” Debra said. Because decisions such as this have to be an everyone thing, the family wrestled with it. When they decided to move forward, Mark sent flowers to his sisters.
“He knew we might have a venture one day that we wanted to pursue and we’d need his support,” Debra said.
To get the team, the Lerners would not only have to pay MLB’s asking price of $450 million but also beat out a half-dozen competitors. The arbiter was Bud Selig, then baseball’s commissioner, who invited Ted Lerner to his office in Milwaukee as part of the interview process. Lerner, who also includes sons-in-law Ed Cohen and Bob Tanenbaum in his businesses and family decision-making, brought his entire family.
Selig had previously owned the Milwaukee Brewers, which he turned into a family business. He had a strong affinity not only for local ownership but for family ownership. Selig’s mentor in baseball had been John Fetzer, the late owner of the Detroit Tigers, a family guy.
“When Ted came to Milwaukee with his family, he said, ‘I know how you felt about Mr. Fetzer,’ ” Selig said in a phone interview last week. “He told me he was going to be my John Fetzer of this generation. The only thing I’ll say: He didn’t disappoint me.”
A different kind of business
The Lerners officially took control of the team in July 2006, and if he taught those who worked for him and others throughout baseball about his own family’s importance in the operation, the baseball experience reminded his family of his defining characteristic: patience.
“He’s the most patient person I know,” Mark Lerner said.
The Nationals were a shambles — not just because they played at dingy old RFK Stadium and not just because they were headed to the first of what would be six straight losing seasons. The minor leagues had no prospects. The scouting and player development departments had the lowest budgets in baseball. As a young man, Ted Lerner borrowed money from his wife to buy his first property — and become a billionaire. He built Tysons Corner. He built White Flint Mall. He hadn’t built a baseball team.
“I think he went in with eyes wide open that literally the bricks and mortar of a real estate business are hard to translate to a baseball business,” said Marla Lerner Tanenbaum, his younger daughter. “The chance that’s involved with baseball, the randomness that can be involved in baseball, is not really a big presence in the real estate business. There are facts. There are numbers. So I think the first thing he could really attack were the numbers, the financial situation of the franchise that he acquired. He dug into that.”
The stories from those early years, as the Lerners learned baseball, are part of Nationals lore. Why did minor league coaches need stopwatches? Why did each player need so many bats? Does this package really need to be sent FedEx? Why do scouts spend so much traveling from place to place? To baseball lifers, such questions were insulting. But Ted Lerner wasn’t going to just accept baseball’s norms until — and unless — he understood them.
“He would learn where the potholes are and how to avoid them,” said Kasten, who served as the team’s president from the time the Lerners took over through the 2010 season. “Sometimes conforming is the way to go. Sometimes being contrarian is the way to go.”
All the while, though, he was soliciting opinions. Even in his late 70s, he knew there were other owners and executives who understood baseball better than he did. Lerner picked up the phone and made the calls to try to figure it out. He met for hours with Scott Boras, the super agent with whom he has built a tight relationship and done several deals because, as Boras said last week, “He wanted to hear about the business from my side.”
“I took several calls from him in those first few years. ‘What’s your strategy on the minor leagues? What kind of resources do you put into ballpark repairs?’ ” said Larry Baer, the CEO of the San Francisco Giants who is also a part owner. “He had a very inquisitive, active mind and wasn’t somebody who’s sitting back and doing it for recognition.”
Pursuing something for recognition is actually counter to how Lerner conducts himself. He declined to be interviewed for this story and over the years has spoken rarely — and in almost no detail — about how his team functions. Developing a mall can benefit the public, but it is a private pursuit. Selig long has referred to baseball as a “social institution.” Explaining the family’s thinking publicly is an aspect of ownership Lerner has avoided.
“There’s really nothing like the business of sports,” said Mark Attanasio, a financier who bought the Brewers in late 2004. “Everything you do is under a microscope. Imagine being on Wall Street and making all these deals over the course of a day and then at the end of the day having to explain all your decisions publicly. That’s the position Ted found himself in. It’s a transition for all of us.”
Lerner has left the explaining to others — even in the early days. During his time as the team’s president, Kasten was the most prominent forward-facing figure, but when he departed, he wasn’t replaced. Mark Lerner writes letters to the fan base following major decisions and occasionally speaks for the family in interviews. But since he became the club’s permanent general manager in 2009, Rizzo most often outlines the team’s thinking — even though such decisions have been reached through discussions with the family. Last year, Ted Lerner transferred official stewardship of the club to Mark. But the patriarch’s voice still matters.
“He’s the type of leader that allows you to voice your opinion — and sometimes vehemently voice your opinion,” Rizzo said. “He wants your true outlook and your true opinion and does not want to hear what you think he wants to hear.”
From 2006 to 2010, only one franchise lost more games than the Nationals. From 2012 through this year, only one team has won more. To a nascent fan base, reaching the World Series could have seemed distant, if not impossible. To Ted Lerner, it was something to build toward at no one else’s pace but his own. Sports inherently involve emotions, and the Lerner family isn’t immune to them.
“You don’t want to be around me after a loss,” Mark Lerner said.
Ted Lerner doesn’t ride that roller coaster. That’s why his joy Tuesday night mattered so much to his family, the people who matter most to him.
“I can’t say that I would ever have that patience,” Mark Lerner said. “I don’t think Debbie and Marla would either. I give him a lot of credit. That’s very hard to say, ‘We’re going to continue to do it the right way whether I’m here or not.’
“For a man of his age to say, ‘Let’s do it right; you have to be patient,’ to me it’s extraordinary.”