It was not supposed to be this way.
When Major League Baseball awarded ownership of the Washington Nationals to Theodore Lerner and his family on May 3, 2006, the team’s prospects never looked brighter. Finally under local control after years of neglect in Montreal and during its first season in the District, the franchise promised to really take off in 2008, when a brand-new stadium would be built on the banks of the Anacostia River. The minor-league system would soon be stocked with homegrown talent, and when the club was ready to win, it could go after select free-agent stars.
Last month, Ted Lerner and his family marked their three-year anniversary as stewards of Washington baseball. But their plan is not working — at all. The Nats are again awful, headed for a second consecutive 100-loss season. Attendance has plummeted in the second year at Nationals Park, dropping from 19th in the majors to 27th. And television ratings — while up 56 percent as of last month — are still the sport’s worst (12,000 households per game). Every few weeks, it seems, another embarrassing public relations fiasco hits — the latest bit of unpleasant news is the tenuous job status of manager Manny Acta.
Those who know him say none of this is easy for Ted Lerner. The proud, 83-year-old patriarch doesn’t fail often. He is a brilliant businessman who almost 50 years ago had the foresight to build suburban shopping malls across the Washington area, including the ones in Tysons Corner.
But professional baseball doesn’t work like the regular business world. There are too many variables — the star pitcher who gets hurt, the expensive draft pick who goes bust. Almost every owner possesses the will to win. But most are left chasing the elusive secret formula that leads to a championship.
“You dream about it,” son Mark Lerner, a principal owner of the Nationals, told The Washington Examiner last winter. “Nothing could compare to building a winning franchise. It will be very special when it finally happens for us.”
When that will be, however, is anyone’s guess. Because though the Lerners are certainly trying, there is enough available ammunition for critics who contend the family doesn’t know how to build a stable franchise. If Acta is fired, it will be an acknowledgment that the club is in serious straits. The press started reporting last Monday that Acta was about to get the ax. Some in the organization feel ownership is leaving its manager “twisting in the wind.” Others sources believe the club genuinely isn’t sure what path to take. But that very indecision is creating another headache for a team that doesn’t need any more.
Last summer, Washington failed to sign its first-round draft pick, Aaron Crow, a pitcher. The team argued that Crow’s agents didn’t negotiate in good faith. But fair or not, the public relations backlash painted the Lerners — already fielding an abysmal big-league product — as equally unwilling to sign top young talent through the draft.
A dispute with the District government hurt, too. The Nats withheld $3.5 million in stadium rent, claiming that the publicly financed, $693 million ballpark was not “substantially complete” when the family took over in March 2008. It took months to resolve the matter, leaving District officials furious.
There was more bad news to come. In February, the team learned that prized Dominican prospect Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez had forged his identity and was actually four years older than his listed age. That scandal eventually led to the resignation of general manager Jim Bowden. Meanwhile, attendance for the first season at Nationals Park was 2.32 million — the lowest total for a team playing in a new stadium since the ballpark boom began in 1992.
“It’s always darkest before it gets light,” said Ted Leonsis, the former AOL executive and owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals, where Mark Lerner is a minority owner.
Leonsis knows better than anyone the position the Lerners are in. After all, he took years of abuse after deciding to rebuild the Caps in 2003. Stars were traded for prospects and draft picks, and the club endured three awful seasons sandwiched around the NHL lockout of 2004. At times like those, the owner always becomes the biggest punching bag.
“When you own a sports team and you articulate a plan, everyone wants you to change the plan or has a better idea,” Leonsis said. “And at that point in time they are all more right than wrong. But if you have a plan you have to stick with it. ... Just make sure you execute [and] don’t be random. Don’t make a move thinking that you’re going to please somebody.”
Ted Lerner is a native Washingtonian. He grew up in Northwest and spent many afternoons in the 1930s watching the Senators play at old Griffith Stadium. The ballpark was just down the hill from his boyhood home off Georgia Avenue, standing at present-day Howard University Hospital. But Lerner never dreamed about actually owning a sports team. That idea came long after he had amassed a fortune.
A 1979 bid to buy the Baltimore Orioles was rebuffed — as was a similar effort a decade ago to purchase the Redskins. It wasn’t until 2006 that Major League Baseball chose Lerner’s offer over seven others to buy the Nats, who had moved from Montreal the year before.
Since finishing .500 in their inaugural season in the District — the year before the Lerners bought the team — the Nats have posted three losing seasons in a row and the 2009 team could finish with the worst record in modern baseball history. Yet the blanket of negativity smothering the franchise doesn’t always square with its actions.
Last December, the Nats made a legitimate push to sign star first baseman Mark Teixeira — the premier free agent on the market. Ted Lerner personally met with Scott Boras, Teixeira’s powerful agent, and, according to sources, the Nats offered more money than any other team. Their bid fell short when Teixeira signed with the New York Yankees. But Ted Lerner’s persistence left Boras and Teixeira impressed and helped alter the perception of the club around the league.
“The Lerners are very informed and very direct about their decisions,” said Boras, whose company features baseball’s most star-studded client list and who also advises the Nationals’ No. 1 2009 draft pick, pitcher Stephen Strasburg. “I certainly understand they’re a family that has a rather remarkable story with what they’ve achieved ... and while not all deals get done, you hope that when you spend the time and go through the process there’s a meeting of the minds in the end.”
That notion has filtered down to some of Lerner’s own players. The Nats signed free-agent slugger Adam Dunn in February to improve a dreadful lineup. He already has 17 home runs and has anchored the offense while batting cleanup. Two months later, star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman inked a five-year, $45 million contract extension. A young player who could have bided his time and become a free agent after the 2011 season saw enough of a future to sign on for a longer haul. It was a small sign of promise — but it was a boost the struggling franchise needed.
“I have faith in the Lerners and ownership that they’re going to continue to bring people in and get this team to where it needs to be,” Zimmerman said. “I think this offseason was a huge step, and they kind of went out and showed what they’re willing to do. That gave a lot of people around here confidence.”