Sunday, January 27, 2008

Q & A With Mark Lerner

Last Season, just before Our Washington Nationals played their first game of 2007, Principal Owner Mark Lerner was kind enough to participate in a Question and Answer Session for The Nats320 Blog. For some time now, I have wanted another opportunity to get together with him and pass some more Q & A back and forth. Unfortunately, our busy schedules have not been able to coincide. Mr. Lerner's availability has never matched my current travel schedule (believe me, a Presidential Election takes up a ton of time). But, he did not wish to disappoint and he agreed to take my written questions, then get back to me.

This past Thursday, Mark Lerner answered my 10 prepared questions. Sure, I would have loved, once again, to ask some follow ups. Hopefully, at a later date that timing can be worked out. And, just to set the record straight, this Q & A with Mark Lerner was already in the works when the Gifford's Ice Cream opportunity came up. So, its entirely a coincidence that Mr. Lerner appears on The Nats320 blog, directly after his sister, Marla.

With that--here we go with my Ten Questions With Mark Lerner.

SBF's Questions in Regular Type. Mr. Lerner's Answers follow in Bold Type.

1. Your Family now has one complete year under your belts as Owners of a Major League Franchise. What do you feel The Lerner’s have accomplished in transforming this franchise? What still needs to be re-worked?

A) The first year and one-half of ownership has flown by and there are not enough hours in the day to keep up with our goals for making the Nationals one of the premier franchises in Major League Baseball. Obviously, we would like to build a club that competes at the championship level every year, and would like to offer unparalleled, affordable family entertainment at Nationals Park. We also think we have a unique responsibility to represent the National Pastime in our Nation’s Capital.

In order to be successful at those objectives, we first had to bring order and stability to a franchise that had been the step-child of MLB for several years, without a strong player development system, without adequate financial resources, without a long-term plan for competing, and without a first-rate venue for playing or enjoying a game.

Now, after our first full season, we are on the brink of opening one of the premier new ballparks in America; are building an exciting and competitive team through trade, draft and player development – improving from 30th among MLB clubs to 9th, according to Baseball America -- and, have brought financial credibility to a club that had not been stable since the early 1990s.

One of the great challenges of baseball, or any other worthwhile endeavor for that matter, is that no matter what you’ve accomplished you always have to be looking to improve. We expect some glitches in the first year of the opening of the new ballpark, but we remain as committed as we were Day One to make the Nationals as special as the fans and the city it represents.

2.How different is managing and building a Major League Franchise as compared to your work with Lerner Enterprises? How similar might these two professions also be?

A. This year we have been dealing with developing a property (ballpark) and developing personnel, both which are familiar to us. And, of course, all our projects – with Lerner Enterprises, and now with the Nationals -- have been developed with an eye toward providing first class, comfortable, customer-friendly atmospheres where people want to return time and time again. In all cases customer satisfaction is the true measure.

The biggest difference is that guys like you, [SBF], rarely called for interviews. Our roles now are, necessarily, more public. I must say, however, that dealing with the media and dealing more directly with the public, with fans, over the last 18 months has been, in most cases, a real joy.

3. It’s well known that you are a minority stakeholder in Lincoln Holdings – which includes The Verizon Center and Washington Capitals Hockey Team. Caps Owner Ted Leonsis is very big on fan friendliness. At times, I have seen you sitting with Mr. Leonsis in The Owners Box at Verizon Center. How important is this relationship with Mr. Leonsis to your work with The Washington Nationals? Has Mr. Leonsis been a good sounding board for Team Ownership?

A. Ted Leonsis is a great friend and mentor of mine and, when it comes to fan friendliness and entertainment, he is an inspiration to anyone in professional sports. He is constantly working to improve his product and believes very much in Washington DC. These were qualities I knew in Ted before I ever joined him as a minority partner in Lincoln Holdings. They are the qualities that convinced me to join him. He’s a constant source of ideas, a qualified and caring critic, and his experience is a great value to me. He’s a valuable resource and friend. He and Nationals President Stan Kasten, because of their unparalleled experience and enthusiasm, have been two of the greatest practical influences I’ve had in sports.

4. Which actually brings up a question from my wife – Sohna. Will ownership be more visible at the new ballpark, meeting and greeting fans, gauging interest and taking comments from fans. How personal will Ownership be with their fans?

A. I love meeting fans. The entire family has gone out to the ballpark and greeted fans as they entered RFK. We will most certainly be out at the ballpark and available when we open the gates to the new Nationals Park this March. I think some family member, or member of our founding partners group, are in attendance at every game. We love fan comments. We have used quite a few fan recommendations as we’ve worked to make the details of the new ballpark as fan friendly as possible.

5. As we briefly discussed once – you were just as disappointed to see The Washington Senators leave town after the 1971 Season as I was. What does it mean to you – to be a major stakeholder in reviving baseball in the Nation’s Capital? I know your spirit is high on this subject. What does this mean to you personally?

A. Baseball has absolutely always been an important part of my life and the life of my family. My Father grew up with and loved the Senators, even worked as a concessionaire at the old Griffith Park. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of watching the Senators with my Dad, reading Shirley Povich articles about the Senators, and, like many boys my age, talking about the Senators and getting high or low with the ups and downs of the team. I cannot begin to tell you how important those memories were, and are, to me personally. I know exactly what having a hometown team means to a community.

Almost as soon as the Senators left in 1971, I remember my Dad talking about ways to bring the game back. He always believed it essential that the National Pastime be played in the Nation’s Capital. He thought it essential to history. He thought it essential to the quality of life in Washington DC. Despite the presence of other sports here, he was committed to bringing back the game that is so much a part of the American self-definition. Obviously, that dream became mine, as well.

As proud as I am of any number of accomplishments with which I’ve been associated, I can honestly say, personally, that next to very special family events like births or marriages, there is nothing that has brought me more deep joy than being a part of seeing Major League Baseball return to Washington DC. My family and I take this stewardship very seriously. We know what the game means to people all over this community. We believe the game and the new ballpark will again be something vitally important to the life of the Nation’s Capital. I feel it, and I see it in the faces of fans every time the subjects come up. Make no mistake. The baseball Nationals are very important to me personally.

6. Team President Stan Kasten recently told me that you are personally involved in the Interior Design Upgrades for New Nationals Park. He said that Design is a profession you have worked in all your adult life. Could you please elaborate on additions you and The Team will be adding to New Nationals Park – outside of the original plans that the team had no part of? Many fans are interested in these aesthetic designs and amenities that will be included on South Capitol Street – Items the DC City Government is not obligated to include in their work.

A. Working on the plans for Nationals Park has been a dream come true. As you probably know, since I was a young man one of my obsessions was to visit ballparks and stadiums around the country and study their design and architecture, figure out what was working and what wasn’t, what were the exciting aspects of each new building. So, when our family had the opportunity to have input on a brand new baseball-only park in our hometown, I was ready. I couldn’t have been more prepared and excited, and we also have visited many more stadiums and arenas since we purchased the team. At Nationals Park, we had the opportunity to make changes and additions that were not in the original plans. I also had the pleasure with my associate Frank Gambino of Lerner Enterprises of picking a lot of the final finishes and colors in the ballpark – those details that people don’t necessarily consciously notice, but that have a great impact on their overall experience.

We also added a much larger main scoreboard (102’x 47’) and made it HDTV quality. The picture will truly be amazing. Outside the seating bowl we have those beautiful cherry blossom trees in left field and the main entry plaza – that’s so DC and such a beautiful touch. We developed a beautiful expanded centerfield restaurant and bar with a 5 foot high ticker on the roof. We put sliding glass doors and private restrooms in all the suites; world class art throughout the building and a memorabilia collection in the stadium club, suites and restaurants. We also added a 10,000 square foot pedestrian plaza behind the main scoreboard and a great kids area that will be known as the Strike Zone. I could go on and on, but you’ll see it all when you get out to the park for Opening Day. It won’t stop there, either. We’ve got plans for enhancements throughout the ballpark in each of the next few seasons.

7. It is my understanding that The Nationals, over time, will add to Nationals Park some type of Washington Hall of Fame of Commemoration for Baseball’s Rich History in DC. The Baseball Hall of Fame has told me, they would assist the Nationals, if asked, to reach this goal. Can you give any details of what might be in the works? 2009 at the earliest – is the time frame mentioned.

A. Your time frame is probably realistic. Without giving up too many of the details that we would certainly want to include in a major announcement, I can tell you we have a number of ideas and plans to honor and celebrate the history of baseball in the Nation’s Capital, including the historic performances of Senators greats like Walter Johnson and Frank Howard, and legendary Negro League players like Josh Gibson. Washington has a very rich baseball history and we intend to try to recapture that history and its magic for today’s fans. We are planning Hall of Fame type exhibits both inside the new ballpark and outside. Other than that, [SBF], I’d rather hold some fan fare until later. I’d love to talk more about it. It’s a passion of mine, but it wouldn’t be fair to the discussions and negotiations we’re having to make these plans realities.

8. Many would say that Baseball is all about the fans. What would you like to see improved – when it comes to The Fan Experience at New Nationals Park. What can be done short term? What would you like to see down the road? Some fans have said they would like to see a Winter FanFest. Can something of this nature come to fruition – in the near future?

A. The fan experience at the new Nationals Park beginning March 30 will be like none fans have experienced in Washington DC at a baseball game ever before. They will be closer to the game, have much better sight-lines, more concession options, more entertainment options, more concerts, in-game activities, family and kid-friendly games and merchandise, and an always improving team on the field. The atmosphere at the new ballpark, within the shadow of the Nation’s Capital will be unlike any other sports venue in the world. Do we have more planned? Always!

You also asked about a Winter Fanfest. In January the team sponsored its Winter Tour that moved players and team personnel around the community, including trips to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Children’s National Medical Center, among many other stops. The reception has been quite good. We are planning a fanfest for next season. This year with the task of getting the new park up and running, we were not able to address a true fanfest. As you know, the highlight of any such celebration is the participation of our players, and we already ask them to perform on and off the field at least eight months of the year. We soon hope they will be performing well into October, but we would love to see more year-round involvement by some players and will encourage more off-season activities for them in the DC area in the future. I think many of our players love these face-to-face fan meetings.

9. Everyone’s goal is to Win the World Series – every single season. What are realistic expectations for 2008? What would make you happy?

A. What would make me happiest would be winning a World Series in 2008. One of my character traits, I must confess, is believing in extraordinary expectations.

That being said, I was very proud of the job our front office, Stan Kasten, Jim Bowden and their staffs, and our young Nationals players did in 2007. Some predicted last year’s team would be horrific. Instead, the team achieved many of its first steps. It won more games than the previous year, moved out of the tough National League East Division cellar, and gave us some remarkable individual and team performances. After mid-May this club played at near playoff level. The Nationals’ efforts in the final days of the season against division leaders certainly showed we know how to compete.

Stan and Jim have made some significant off-season moves to make the club stronger, younger and faster. Our minor league system is significantly better. Baseball America rated the Nationals in last place at the beginning of 2007 from the standpoint of player development and personnel. At the beginning of 2008 the publication places the Nationals in the top third. That’s some improvement.

What I absolutely expect every game from a Manny Acta managed club is an aggressive, smart, hard-playing, never-say-die performance. I think Manny Acta is the best young manager in the game. He knows how to play and how to get his players to perform. I have a new set of expectations for this team scribbled down on a sealed envelope that I may show you at the end of the 2008 season. You come to every game and you’ll be able to see by the expression on my face whether those expectations are being met.

10. And finally – Where is the team heading right now? Will This Franchise be a Major Player, on and off the field—for years to come? In other words—can Washington compete with the New York, Chicago and Los Angeles Franchises? The Power Players – like Boston?

A. Absolutely. One of the reasons for bringing baseball back to Washington DC was to create another big-time market for MLB. Interest in the National Pastime in the Nation’s Capital – with a new monument of a ballpark – should make DC the new must-see team in America. I believe the Nationals, because of our most unique geography and history, could well become America’s Home Team in coming years. Our location is right, our new ballpark with be magnificent, our club management is unmatched, and our on-the-field personnel will only improve. The upside in this market is phenomenal. We expect our fans to be the final player in making the Nationals one of the premier franchises not only in baseball, but in all sports.

That concludes my Q & A With Mark Lerner. When we both agreed to this written question and answer format, as before--I again encouraged Mr. Lerner to be as EXPANSIVE as possible. To his credit--he, once again, took my questions and answered them at length. His willingness to participate in this type of forum, is a good sign that Our Washington Nationals are not only aware of their fans, but also of their many concerns and wants.

By the way--you can bet--come the end of the 2008 Season, I am going to ask Mark Lerner about that sealed envelope with his predictions.

PS--The photo in this post is from a previous get together with Mr. Lerner--since timing would not allow a face-to-face on this occasion.


Edward J. Cunningham said...

This gives me a great deal of hope. I don't expect the Nats to win the World Series every year, and I don't think we can be AS successful as the Braves were in the 90's. But it looks like we're moving in the right direction and I think I may just live to the Nats play in the postseason---maybe even win the World Series!

Also, and I know you may laugh at this, but this ex-Oriole fan hopes that Andy McPhail will eventually turn around the Orioles. As much as a laughingstock as the Birds have become, die-hard Orioles fans are among the best in baseball. Whether they live in Bal'mer or the Virginia suburbs, they certainly deserve better.

But enough of that other team. If Ted Leonsis is a friend of Mark Lerner's, then maybe the Capitals (perhaps the Wizards too?) could do some cross promotions with the Nationals? It certainly couldn't hurt...

Anonymous said...

excellent article!

If you recall, we wrote on your blog concerning tv broadcasts in the Blacksburg, VA area.

We're comcast customers and do not get masn, at least not standard, but we also haven't seen any offers to upgrade. We're planning on making some calls ourselves, but if you had the opportunity to possibly find something out from the source, that would be greatly appreciated!

Screech's Best Friend said...

Virginia Tech Nats Fans: I mentioned in the comment area last time you wrote that I called MASN and asked them your question. I was told that Comcast carries MASN down there, but maybe not the other providers. You should ask your comcast local guys. That's what I was told.

SenatorNat said...

This compelling interview is certainly a Good Scion for the future of our beloved Nationals: I trust that for his time, Mr. Lerner receives a case of Dingers, correct. (And, no truth to the rumour that Dan Synder has added Manny Acta to his list to be interviewed to replace St. Joe, correct?!)

Trust in Giffords (and the Red Star on your receipt means you win a free ice cream cake!). Everything good.

Anonymous said...

virginia tech nats fan:

Can you get DirecTV where you live? If so, you should get MASN with them.


Excellent interview. Of course, I never expect anything less from you. :-)

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article. I have great hope for the future. We have to focus on DC's baseball history. It still boggles my mind that Washington, DC has hosted more Major League baseball games than Baltimore. Which reminds me. I watched "The Day the Earth Stood Still" today on AMC. A flying saucer lands on the National Mall. The heroine's kid makes friends with the spaceman. DC kid, living in DC, visiting a landed flying saucer on the Mall in DC....wearing a Yankees hat throughout the entire movie! Oh, the insult...

Eric said...

From looking at some of the webcam shots today, it looks like they were testing out the scoreboard. One more thing to be excited about.