Ted Lerner, the Washington real estate magnate who became the owner of the Washington Nationals a dozen years ago, will cede control of the club to his son, Mark, following a vote by Major League Baseball’s franchise owners Thursday.
The transfer, which gives 64-year-old Mark Lerner voting power with MLB, takes place immediately and is the first indication of how the team will be governed by the next generation of the Lerner family, which does not intend to sell the team. The move was approved unanimously by baseball’s 29 other owners, who were meeting this week at the league’s offices in New York.
“On a personal basis, obviously it’s very exciting for me,” Mark Lerner said in an interview before the vote. “It’s something I have dreamed of since I was a little guy. But more importantly, the faith my parents have in me for them to do this at this time, it’s very exciting in that regard. The faith also that my family has in me . . . it means a lot that they’re around to share this with me.”
Since the Lerners bought the Nationals from MLB for $450 million in 2006, there had been no clear path of succession should Ted Lerner, now 92, step aside. The patriarch of the family governed by consensus, involving his wife, Annette; Mark and his sisters, Marla Tanenbaum and Debra Cohen; Mark’s wife, Judy; Marla’s husband, Bob Tanenbaum; and Debra’s husband, Ed Cohen.
But it was always clear that Ted Lerner held the power, the veto vote, be it on nine-figure contracts or who should be the manager. Though Mark Lerner said his father would still have input, the family is preparing for a full transition.
“Twelve years ago, when Major League Baseball selected my family as the owners of the Washington Nationals, I could not have been happier,” Ted Lerner said in a statement. “I always knew that someday my son, Mark, would take over my role as Managing Principal Owner. That day has come. I look forward to watching him take the helm and help lead this team to a world championship.”
The change in control leaves obvious questions: Will the Nationals run by Mark Lerner behave differently than the Nationals run by Ted Lerner?
“I don’t think you’ll see much difference in the way Dad and the family running it versus myself and the family,” Mark Lerner said. “Maybe as time moves along, I’ll do things a little bit differently. But at the end of the day, every major decision, we make together. And that’s always worked well for us.”
Mark Lerner has worked for and with his father in the family real estate business, Lerner Enterprises, for 43 years, since the younger Lerner graduated from George Washington University. When the family took over the team, Mark was the Lerner who most openly and publicly embraced the role — occasionally donning a full uniform and shagging flyballs at the team’s old spring training headquarters in Viera, Fla., or at home at RFK Stadium and, later, Nationals Park. In a dozen years owning the club, Ted Lerner has maintained a lower profile, speaking infrequently. Mark, meanwhile, sits in the first row just to the left of the Nationals’ dugout, often wearing a team jacket and cap.
“I love interacting with the fans,” he said.
Still, Mark called his father “a great mentor” and said he plans to continue using the family’s rule-by-consensus philosophy.
“Certainly, with major decisions, it could be a number of different people involved, but the goal was that if the four couples get together and have to make a decision — like vote on whether we’re going to dismiss the manager or whatever is involved in making a large investment — we try to do it as a group and do it with unanimity,” Mark Lerner said. “That’s always worked well with us. . . . In reality, it’s the eight of us on major decisions, and it’ll continue to be that way.”
One difference recently: Ted and Annette Lerner’s three children have started involving their own kids with the Nationals. Mark’s sons Jonathan, 33, and Jacob, 30, are involved in the family business, as are Debra and Ed Cohen’s children, Michael and Jaclyn. The family plans to hold onto its hometown team for the foreseeable future.
“We will never sell the Nationals,” Mark Lerner said. “That’s what we’ve worked to get all those years. We think we do a pretty good job of it. There’s no intention of this family — certainly while I’m alive and my sisters and brothers-in-law are alive — nobody’s going to sell this team.”
Since the Nationals became contenders in the 2012 season — they have won four of the past six NL East championships — the Lerner family has shown it will spend on talent. The current Nationals had an Opening Day payroll estimated at $201 million — just above MLB’s $197 million “competitive balance” threshold, above which teams pay a tax on every dollar spent.
Mark Lerner said the Nationals will be governed by the situation, not by the so-called luxury tax.
“In 2018, we are above the luxury tax already, so that doesn’t scare us,” he said. “We don’t like it, as business people. I don’t think people like going over it. Even the Yankees are very cognizant. We don’t want to go over it. But I think people know us well enough by now: We will do whatever it takes to win.”
Even with the Nationals embroiled in a chase for the division title with upstart Atlanta, the team’s major offseason issue hangs over the 2018 campaign: Will star outfielder Bryce Harper re-sign with Washington? Harper is represented by Scott Boras, the game’s most prominent agent. In past years, Boras has negotiated major contracts — free agent deals for outfielder Jayson Werth and pitcher Max Scherzer, an extension for pitcher Stephen Strasburg — directly with Ted Lerner, who in turn takes baseball advice from Mike Rizzo, the team’s general manager.
Will that process change with Mark Lerner?
“Obviously, my dad and Scott have an interesting relationship, and it’s been successful for the two of them,” Mark Lerner said. “So, you know, I don’t expect things to really change. If Dad wants to be involved in that negotiation, for as long as he wants to be involved, he’s welcome to be involved. This is not Mark Lerner taking it over.”
As for Harper, his impending free agency hangs over not only the Nationals, but over the entire sport. Washington completed a two-game series Wednesday night against the Yankees in New York, and reporters there are obsessed with the 25-year-old’s future. Yet the Nationals are the only professional team he has known.
“It’s not just in our hands, obviously,” Lerner said. “But we’ve said many times how much we admire Bryce. We feel like he’s a member of the family who’s been around since, what? First time we saw him was 16 years old. We’re delighted for his success, and if we had the opportunity to keep him and it makes sense for the long-term vision of the club, we will do it.”
The transfer of control of the Nationals comes at the conclusion of an emotional and difficult year for Mark Lerner. In January 2017, Lerner was diagnosed with a rare cancer in his left leg. Though radiation rid him of the cancer, complications caused doctors to recommend amputating the leg above the knee. Lerner had that surgery in August, and in February he was fitted with a prosthetic, which he has been using for as many as eight to 12 hours per day.
“Like everything else in this thing, it’s a process,” Lerner said. “You have good days. You have bad days. You have frustrating moments. I’ve had them all. But overall, I’m doing pretty well. . . . I’m certainly not moving around like I used to and running around Nationals Park like a crazy man. But overall, Judy and I have been very blessed through this whole thing.”
Lerner expects both he and his father to be at Nationals Park on July 17, when the club will host Washington’s first All-Star Game since 1969.