Thursday afternoon, Ted Lerner walked toward the exit of the home clubhouse at Nationals Park, where he had just sat and applauded from the front row as the baseball club he owns introduced the seventh manager of his family’s 12-year stewardship. Might he stop and talk a bit about the process that led the Washington Nationals to Dave Martinez, the latest skipper charged with — gulp — winning a World Series here?
“I usually say no,” Lerner said, rather politely.
Please. Pretty please.
Thursday was about Martinez, of course, because the Nationals have entrusted their loaded roster to the 53-year-old baseball lifer for a season in which there is no goal — by their own unequivocal statements — other than winning the World Series. But the day of Martinez’s introduction was, really, even more about the Lerner family and its 92-year-old patriarch.
“These things aren’t in a vacuum,” said the Lerners’ free agent-to-be general manager, Mike Rizzo. “This isn’t a one-man show.”
Well, not technically. It’s just that one man matters more than the rest. This is the franchise of Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer, right? Those are the men whose images adorn the massive concrete walls that make up Nationals Park.
But that so misses the point. Those players, they’ll come and go. This is, now and going forward, the franchise of Theodore N. Lerner. We hear from him only rarely, if at all. But never forget whose imprint is on this franchise more than any other.
“His involvement is like any other major decision we make in this franchise’s history: It’s a group decision,” Rizzo said. “The ownership group, which includes Mr. Lerner, and with the executive branch, which includes me.”
But as we get to know Martinez and gain a feel for how he’ll handle the club, let’s be clear about something: If the Lerners didn’t own the team, and Ted Lerner didn’t provide the most important counsel, and the baseball operations department made the choice, Dusty Baker would still be the manager.
And he is not.
“It was difficult, and we had a lot of consultation,” Lerner said. “I think everybody was unanimous of the decision.”
The decision to remove Baker after two division-title seasons in which he won 95 and 97 games — yet failed to advance past the division series, each time with an excruciating, easy-to-second-guess loss in the fifth game — casts a shadow on Martinez’s tenure, fairly or unfairly. In Martinez’s favor is the fact that Rizzo and his staff convinced ownership that it had to give the new manager a three-year deal — normal for the industry, outlandish for the Nats.
“It was something that I felt was important for this manager at this stage of our franchise, that it needed to happen,” Rizzo said. “Beyond that, it was the market value for good, young, intelligent managers.”
Hurdle cleared. About that good, young, intelligent manager-to-be: In order for Martinez to wear the Curly W cap and sit behind the red microphone Thursday, the family that owns the team had to find a comfort level with him. He had been through this process before, back in the fall of 2013. There may be no ownership group in baseball that is more involved in the selection of its manager, including dining with Martinez last week at Morton’s on Connecticut Avenue. Lose the Lerners, and you lose the job.
“We just thought there was a lot of energy, a lot of talent, and that he’s worked with one of the great managers,” Ted Lerner said, speaking of Martinez’s old boss with the Cubs, Joe Maddon. “We think that he’s ready to move. He knows that we want to win a World Series. It’s not a matter of stopping along the way.”
This has now become an edict from ownership: Win it all. Ted’s wife, Annette; son, Mark; and daughter Marla Tanenbaum were among those who joined Lerner in the front row at Thursday’s news conference. When Martinez stated his goal — “We’re here to win a World Series,” he said — the family clapped, and the front office followed. When Martinez said bluntly, “We’re going to get it done,” Annette Lerner said, “Yay!” and raised her hands.
When the Lerners bought the Nationals from Major League Baseball in the summer of 2006 and began this odyssey, Ted Lerner was 80 — with so much ahead of him. The process his front office entered then was one of the first strip-it-down-and-build-it-up efforts the league had seen this century, predating those undertaken by the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, who just happen to have won the past two World Series.
All this time later, there is a sense not of desperation but at least of mortality. Who knows how many Fall Classics any of us have left, even those on this side of 92? The dozen World Series since the Lerners bought the Nats have produced eight different champions, including the Cubs, who won for the first time in 108 years, and the Astros, who won for the first time in team history. What Lerner and his family have learned is that, even though someone has to win every year, that task can seem impossibly hard.
“There’s no question about it,” Lerner said. “It seems like, every year, it’s a new winner of the World Series. It’s not like the Yankees and the streak they had. You have to work your way through it and get the right combination, and some additional talent maybe. Perhaps we can get there.”
Perhaps they will get there under Martinez’s guidance. Perhaps not. Rizzo was asked to compare the process that led to Martinez to those that led to Matt Williams, then Bud Black (who never signed his deal) and then to Baker, and the general manager was able to joke, “We’re good at it. We know what we’re doing. We’ve had a lot of practice at it.”
But at some point, you run out of chances to practice. Now the Nationals are in the odd spot of having a manager signed for two years beyond the man who hired him. Rizzo’s deal is up at the end of the 2018 season. Lerner’s club has plenty of experience in vetting manager candidates. It has hired a general manager only once: in 2009, when Rizzo, then the Nats’ acting GM, competed against Jed Hoyer, then an assistant in Boston (and now GM of the Cubs), and Jerry Dipoto, then in the Arizona front office (and now GM in Seattle).
Rizzo is the only general manager who has worked here through the 100-loss seasons to the euphoria of the first division title to now, when division titles aren’t enough. So often, Rizzo is tasked with explaining decisions that he advised against. These unanimous, group decisions that seem filled with promise on a day such as Thursday? They don’t always start out that way, and that can wear on a front office.
So, then, Mr. Lerner, would you expect that Mike Rizzo would be your general manager going forward?
“I would hope so,” Lerner said. “We haven’t reached that stage yet. But we would hope to continue success with him.”
2018 will be a big year for this franchise. Bryce Harper will be here. Daniel Murphy will be here. Mike Rizzo will be here.
But most important, so will Ted Lerner. Winning a World Series is not a directive that comes from Mike Rizzo or Dave Martinez. That comes from the top, with weight.
“That’s our objective,” Lerner said. “No stops along the way.”
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