Sunday, April 01, 2007

Chatting With The Principal Owner

April 2nd, 2007, marks a significant day for Our Washington Nationals. For the first time in their short history, the team will, not only begin the season at home in The Nation's Capital (hopefully, a tradition that will rightfully continue for years to come), but with Real Ownership in place and a 30 year lease signed and sealed to play on South Capitol Street, come 2008. No longer will Washington Baseball Fans have to worry whether Major League Baseball wil continue to play games, dangling the carrot of Baseball in front of The City and its Fans, in an effort to take even more money and run. The Lerner Group, headed by Ted Lerner, has been in control of the Washington Nationals since last summer, with his son--Mark Lerner, managing many of the day to day Ownership Duties. Just this week, the Washington Post wrote about how Mark Lerner, along with Team President, Stan Kasten and General Manager, Jim Bowden are the trio that has combined together in an effort to transform this franchise.

With Opening Day, tomorrow against The Florida Marlins--I wanted to gauge Ownerships views of what's happening with Our Washington Nationals. Through a series of contacts, I asked whether Mark Lerner would sit down and chat with me for The Nats 320 Blog. Sure enough, as has been the case in the past, the response was positive. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts and timing on both parts would not allow for a face to face conversation. But, not to disappoint, Mr. Lerner willingly agreed to answer my written questions, if I forwarded them along, which I did. My Questions, became more thoughts, in a effort to get more complete responses. And, I encouraged him to be as expansive as possible. His answers were back to me in just a few days. Although this format did not allow for any followups, to his great credit, Mark Lerner did answer all my questions fully. Following is the complete write-up, my questions followed by his answers, in bold.

1. Your family has a long a successful business career in Lerner Enterprises, why did you want to get involved in Major League Baseball? Your father, Ted Lerner, seems energized by the team. What drew your family’s attention to baseball?

Baseball was always a large part of my life, as long as I can remember. My father, Ted, grew up watching the Senators play. He even had a job working at old Griffith Stadium when he was a teenager. He started taking me to games before I could even walk. When the Senator’s left in 1971 we were devastated. We’d always hoped that we could be part of bringing a team back to the district. Baseball belongs here – it’s got such a long history here and I’ve always firmly believed the National Pastime should be played in our Nation’s Capital. You’d be surprised by how often people stop me to tell me how glad they are that big league baseball is back in Washington. We’re really excited to be a part of that.

2. Were you ever disappointed over the many delays in the Naming of Ownership process by MLB? How did the Lerners and Stan Kasten meet during the ownership process? How much influence did MLB have over the original meeting. How long before you realized the match was a good one, and why? How much of an asset is Mr. Kasten to you and your family in guiding The Lerner Group to the many potholes that develop along the way of owning a team?

My Dad met Stan in 2003. Everyone familiar with baseball knew Stan’s amazing record in Atlanta – on the field and on the business side. Under his watch, the Braves won division titles, pennants, and the World Series. They developed a strong farm system and consistently fielded great talent. He had even helped them build Turner Field.

Early on, we had talked with Stan about getting a team into the D.C. area, but when he made his own bid those conversations, naturally, stopped. Later on, we made the decision that we’d both be putting forward a stronger bid if we joined forces. I’d say it’s lucky that we did.

Stan’s been invaluable to us. His knowledge of the game and the people involved has helped us navigate these new waters. His philosophy for developing the team, his emphasis on fan experience, are both key areas that we all think will be important in taking this team into the future and made our partnership seem like a natural fit.

Of course waiting through the bidding process was difficult and, I must admit, patience is not one of my strongest virtues, but the deal that MLB and the City negotiated was intended to better ensure that the team would have a better ability to compete in the short and long term. It would have been impossible for a new ownership group to purchase the team, build a new world class ballpark AND field a competitive team.

3. The Stadium wrangling between MLB and The District of Columbia has left some city officials and citizens bitter (and many fans dismayed), what have you done as owners to meet with them (City Leaders), appease them, to prove to those naysayer’s that The Stadium Deal, in the long run, is a good deal for the City. Although a Staunch Critic, Mayor Adrian Fenty at least publicly seems willing to work with the team. Have you had any productive meetings with him? Can The District and The Team Grow Together now?

Mayor Fenty has proven himself to be a great partner to the team. We’ve met with him many times now and we’re all invested in getting the ballpark up on time and on budget. I think it’s universally recognized that the new ballpark will spur and contribute to a revitalization of the neighborhood and economy in the SE section of the district, which is beneficial for all of us.

4. Whether you are running a Real Estate Business, a Construction Company, or a Baseball Team, there is a business model to operate it. When your family took over control of the team, how bad a shape was The Nationals Operation business-wise. I am not asking about the product on the field. How badly did this team need an overhaul on the business side?

Obviously, a team without directly invested ownership was not going to get the same kind of attention one would get with ownership that was/is working with its own financial resources. Some of the business operations inherited from MLB were still located in Montreal, other areas were more scaled down than one would see in a fully invested franchise. With Stan Kasten, we have been working diligently to determine what staff and business resources are absolutely necessary to allow our on and off-the-field operations to adequately meet the challenges of building and marketing a new franchise, of building a new ballpark, and of developing a team that can one day compete for a World Series title. I won’t tell you there weren’t huge challenges and we didn’t find unanticipated obstacles, but, like any new business, there are certain sound and logical business judgments we are using to make the Nationals a model for success in Major League Baseball.

5. Its been reported that The Lerners are adding, at least, an additional $30 Million to upgrades to the new ballpark. Was the original design of the ballpark, handed to you and your group, without any say in the original negotiations on that subject, a disappointment in design and utility? Can we (fans) expect more upgrades? Will the exterior have the limestone (DC Monuments) feel that so many originally talked about?

The new ballpark is going to be tremendous – we expect it to be one of the most beautiful ballparks in Major League Baseball and we’re extremely proud of the design. In keeping with the monument aesthetic in Washington, DC, limestone pre-cast has been integrated into the design.

Obviously, as good as the design and plan were, upon assuming control we found there were many additional things that we felt were important to the fan experience and we were willing to make that investment up front, knowing that it would probably make sense in the long term. In the continuous effort to keep our games affordable to all fans, we are constantly looking for ways to maximize revenues from our corporate sponsors and suite-holders. First- class amenities and regular upgrades are essential to that.

We exist in a competitive entertainment market. If we want to be successful in DC and within MLB, we need to continuously find new ways to engage our fans and expand our revenue streams so that we can field a winning team. Fans from all over the country will be visiting the new Nationals Park, and we thought it was important that the game be showcased in a ballpark that’s first class in every single way.

6. Your ownership is in its infancy, much has occurred for The Washington Nationals Franchise since the team was officially handed over to The Lerner Group last July. What have been THE MOST JOYFUL MOMENTS? Those times that have filled you with Bliss over owning a Major League Team. And, what have been the shake your head, why do I have to deal with this, headache moments, that must be dealt with, but are frustrating to you, because you feel they waste time, and in the long term, are not important?

The months since we were officially notified that we would be the new owners of the Washington Nationals have been filled with so many joyful moments. Undertaking this as a family has meant so much to all of us -- it feels terrific. May 3 will always be memorable; the Grand Re-Opening Weekend that celebrated the closing of the deal with MLB (July 21) was truly exciting – our first real chance to interact with the fans and show them how much we appreciated their support for bringing a team to DC; Manny Acta’s signing was a pretty big deal for us – we really liked him and felt that he would be an energetic manager that would be perfect for the team we’re putting together.

It’s hard to shake your head about anything when we all feel that we’ve been so blessed. Buying a baseball team has been one of the most exciting things to ever happen to us as a family. With any new business you have moments that give you pause, but luckily they quickly fade from memory in the light of all the great things going on.

Impatience is a small price to pay, we believe, for successfully bringing the National Pastime back to the families living near or visiting our Nation’s Capital

7. There are still fans out there that continually blister The Lerner Group for what THEY perceive as ownership NOT SPENDING money on players to be competitive this past off season. And, the expected drop in Annual Team Payroll from above $60 Million to possibly near $40 Million in 2007 is a sign winning is not the ultimate goal of the franchise. Can you please comment on that speculation, once and for all?

Anyone who says we’re not spending money isn’t looking in the right place. We’re spending plenty of money, but we’re spending it smart. In studying the economics of the game we decided to follow the plan of the Atlanta Braves and other clubs that have been successful over the long-term. Player development is crucial to consistently fielding a winning team and we didn’t want to hamstring the organization by bringing in expensive talent that might be a quick fix, but didn’t fit with our long-term goals.

The Nationals farm system was in terrible shape before Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden got their hands on it. In the last eight months we’ve made changes that have already catapulted us into one of the mos
t promising farm and scouting systems. We’re extraordinarily proud of that.

We’re determined to find and bring up players who will consistently perform for us into the future. As the club begins generating more revenues, and, at the appropriate time, we will certainly be bringing in some free agents that will complement the team we’ve put together and hopefully put us over the top for wins sooner rather than later. Believe me, that’s what we all want.

8. Opening Day, 2007 is the very first day of The Washington Nationals under its original ownership. It’s a significant day to me. Stability has arrived. No longer do fans have to worry about whether MLB, or The City or someone else will step in and the team will move away, again. I am so happy this team is here to stay. What are your feelings about April 2nd, 2007.—everything you have gone through to reach this important day. What can fans expect for 2007? And, when that day is over: What are your short and long term goals for this franchise?

This has been a really satisfying time for us. When we took over the team last year, the season was already underway and there were frenzied efforts to make the improvements that we thought were vital to the fan experience, all while getting a grasp on our new business.

April 2nd, 2007 is a whole new ballgame. We’ve had time to implement the upgrades to RFK that we felt were important, we’ve had a chance to develop a relationship with our fans and the community, and we’ve begun to have an impact on the play on the field.

In 2007 you’ll see how far we’ve come. New manager Manny Acta promises to field a team that’s full of hustle and love for the game. Every play on the field should reflect the direction, philosophy, and competitiveness that Stan Kasten and Jim Bowden have designed.

It’s an extraordinary honor to have been named the caretakers of the national pastime in the Nation’s Capital. We take that responsibility quite seriously. We believe the Washington Nationals will come to be America’s home team. We pledge to bring the passion, performance and quality that will be demanded of the pastime in this city.

9. I have read that your Father, Ted Lerner, has been personally involved in the potential car parking problem at The New Stadium come 2008. Can you tell me what’s being done to work out a situation where the club is losing 10,000 parking spaces at RFK, but does not control even 1/5th that amount on South Capitol Street? For fans, this has to be THE NUMBER ONE CONCERN. I don’t think any other topic comes close in importance.

The agreement between the City and MLB left a number of issues somewhat unresolved, none more important than that of parking. Certainly, my father and my brothers-in-law Ed Cohen and Bob Tanenbaum, and everyone in the ownership group, as well as officials with DCSEC and the Council, have been trying to identify every possible parking option, while also trying to secure adequate Metro access to the new ballpark. I assure you we are leaving no stone unturned in our pursuit of easier access and adequate parking, including the possibility of continued parking arrangements with the DCSEC (DC Sports & Entertainment Commission) for RFK and shuttle services.

10. Many new baseball stadiums around the country honor significant players from their towns past. Despite being out of The Major Leagues for 34 consecutive years, DC has a valuable and rich history in the game. Walter Johnson, Josh Gibson and Frank Howard are three of our greatest sons. I know that some are looking into returning to the new stadium, the original Walter Johnson Plaque that was at Old Griffith Stadium, but moved to Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. Any Chance The Nationals will build three statues to commemorate three of Washington’s Finest at the new park—Johnson, Gibson and Hondo? Will The Nationals honor Washington Baseball History somewhere on South Capitol Street?

All of us at the Nationals are very proud of the accomplishments of some of DC’s greats. Throughout the new ballpark fans will see tributes to some of those legends. We are continuing to find ways to honor and commemorate the players, the moments, the events that made the National Pastime in the Nation’s Capital so special for all of us. I invite you to pay close attention over the next months as we begin to share some exciting ideas we have about honoring our past, and our future.

11. This is the final season at RFK Stadium. Many Nationals fans probably do not covet RFK as much as I do. I attended 60 games there, as a youngster, watching My Washington Senators (unless a child’s father played for The Senators, I can’t image many other kids attending as many games as I was fortunate to attend). As much as I look forward to the new stadium, I will miss Old DC Stadium. What has the team planned special for its final days? And, will The Washington Nationals honor THE FINEST PLAYER TO EVER CALL RFK HIS HOME—Frank Howard? I know Mr. Kasten told me that he has personally reached out to Frank. Many long time Washingtonians would cherish the moment. Its important to us.

All of us treasure RFK – most of my family grew up watching games there. It will be bittersweet to say goodbye to it and move to the new ballpark. We already have many ideas for honoring RFK Stadium as we move through our final season there, and we’ll be rolling them out through the season. We already started by honoring Robert F. Kennedy at our Washington Nationals Dream Foundation Gala on March 31st.

12. If you have not touched on this in a previous question. Are you enjoying being an owner? What makes it special?

That’s easy: What makes it special is baseball – pure and simple. Every day I wake up thrilled to be one of the owners of the Washington Nationals. Knowing what this game means to kids, to families, to fans of all ages, and what the Nationals can mean to each of them and to Washington, DC, reminds me how important our job is, and how fortunate we are to be a part of this dream. I will never forget that I am a fan first in every decision I am involved in. We will be a GREAT franchise.

That officially concludes My Chat With The Principal Owner. Would I have loved to get in some followups, you better believe it. But timing would not allow that to happen. Maybe, at a later date. When I sent off my questions to Mark Lerner, I asked if he might be available to take a photo with me to set up the interview. What would a Chat on The Nats320 Blog be without my standard photo with the subject?
Thankfully, Mr. Lerner agreed. We met this past Friday Afternoon on the field at RFK Stadium at 2PM. After taking a few shots, we actually had a terrific private conversation for a good 20 minutes. None of which, I will discuss. I found Mr. Lerner very engaging, straightforward and extremely interested in what was on my mind.

So, the point I want to make is that over the past three months, I have been very fortunate, through some very dedicated, passionate and hard work, to get a real inside look at the makings of Our Washington Nationals. Nothing was given to me. I am not blind to the fact that some National's fans are disappointed and upset with some of the movement in the team's direction. What I have found out though, is that the team is WILLING TO LISTEN. Whether its Mark Lerner, Stan Kasten or Jim Bowden, there is an openness to reach out and discuss ideas. They may not necessarily agree with everything I or you say, but the the door is not shut. Can you imagine Washington Redskins Owner Daniel Snyder meeting fans at the Gates of FedEx Field to welcome his customers into the game, like Mark Lerner has done. Or, Daniel Snyder dealing with individual fans issues, like Mr. Kasten. I doubt it.

I am very interested in seeing what road we head down under their leadership. Its going to be fascinating. And, if there is one thing I am certain about, as Our Washington Nationals grow, The Fan Base will not be left hanging on the side of the road. Despite some folks concerns expressed over the past few months at The Washington Franchise, Management seems open enough to care and work out every concern to its best outcome. That's a good sign.

Its just not going to happen tomorrow.



Anonymous said...

Once again, SBF, great stuff. I truly feel like you are the surrogate for those of us who want to get more information from those involved in the Nationals organization. I truly appreciate your efforts to meet and talk with all of the principals, and the wealth of information from those contacts that you have shared with us. Keep up the good work. I definitely plan to stop by section 320 this spring to introduce myself. And I hope that I'll have the chance to meet the lovely Mrs. SBF, as well, when I get there!

Shawn said...

Great interview.I have been lurking here over the winter,since the announcement of the Nats becoming the parent team of the local Hagerstown Suns.
Hopefully some of the new draftees show up here,as the guys from last year do not look promising.
Stop by my blog
I am a Pirate and Indian fan,but will write often about the Suns and the South Atlantic League,so hopefully that will be of interest!

Anonymous said...

hey SBF
look on the Nats site and check out D-Willis of the Marlins comments on the Nats
He says they are vastly underrated and I think its true

JammingEcono said...

Hey SBF, great post as always. I'll try to stop by Sec. 320 tomorrow and say hello!

JayB said...

Thanks SBF once again. I always enjoy your efforts and you have great long term view....I hope your right!

Back to reality though....What a surprise....Guzman hurt, Logan out, Church can not hit, Snelling can not field or hit, Patterson is not an ace of any staff. Worest of all, the team showed no heart today. They just looked dead (I though Mannie was going to put some life into them, looked like a Frank Team today)

Now how does the roster look to you? Wait, I know the answer....GREAT in the long run!