Sunday, April 04, 2010

Nats320 Opening Day Chat With Mark Lerner

With the 25-Man Roster for Opening Day now set and year six about to begin for Our Washington Nationals, Principal Owner Mark Lerner agreed to an interview with Nats320 to lead off the 2010 Major League Baseball Season. With that, here is the complete transcript. Mr. Lerner's answers in bold typeface.

1) Unlike other professional sports, baseball has a fan base that is deeply rooted in the game. Baseball is personal to millions of fans – including those of the Washington Nationals – who feel they are stakeholders in their favorite teams. As ownership, speaking to stakeholders at a yearly gathering before Opening Day, what’s your progress report? What’s been done well? What needs to be improved? What does the future truly hold? Is the team’s stock rising?

Our family thinks of the entire Washington, D.C., community as stakeholders in the Washington Nationals. We know how much this team can mean to the Nation’s Capital, both on the field and off. We never forget that it was the promise of area stakeholders, after all, that convinced Major League Baseball to return to D.C. That being said, I think that the 2010 Nationals team is going to be one of the most intriguing in all of baseball. We got Nyjer Morgan – a crucial team addition -- back to good health, we acquired some key veterans and we are eagerly waiting for two of the most exciting rookie pitching prospects in recent years to make their big league debuts.

I think we are much improved over last season and there is no doubt in my mind that we should be close to realizing the returns for having spent the last several seasons building our minor league system, improving our scouting and player development, and putting the pieces together for a team that can begin competing in the National League East. Our stock is most assuredly on the rise.

2) The Washington Nationals are coming off two consecutive 100-loss seasons. Can you point directly to why there is hope for DC Baseball to be successful in 2010 and beyond? Is a foundation for long term success being built? What, if anything, stands in the way?

Boy, I can’t begin to tell you how painful the last couple of seasons have been as we continue to go through the building process. I kept wishing there was some magic formula for skipping over the foundation-building phase, but history and the experience of folks like team president Stan Kasten, told me otherwise.

First, I think we have a better club position-by-position than we’ve ever had at the start of a season here under the current ownership. We are also healthier. I like our leadoff hitter and the speed offered by Nyjer Morgan and can’t wait to see what he can do in a full season. Adam Dunn is ready to pick up where he left off last year as a Home Run hitter. All-Star and Gold Glove winner Ryan Zimmerman is becoming more polished and more solid every year. We’ve added a sure-fire Hall of Fame veteran catcher in Pudge Rodriguez to help our young players learn how to win. And, we’ve got about as many young pitching prospects as anyone in baseball.

I think we have more talent throughout the organization than we’ve ever had and I like our potential over the next several years. For the first time, we have talent at every position and we also have trade abilities we’ve never had before. The most important thing we have to do this season is learn how to finish games and be confident day-in and day-out about our ability to win. That comes with experience. I believe we have the right manager in Jim Riggleman, and the right scouts and coaches to help our young players learn how to win and to expect to win.

3) That being said, how difficult was 2009 for you with the resignation of Jim Bowden during Spring Training and the firing of Manny Acta? Along with the public chastising of the franchise, in some circles?

As I said, the last two seasons have been tough ones. We all wish both of them all the best in their new jobs – Jim as a broadcaster and analyst, and Manny as manager for the Cleveland Indians. One never likes being chastised, but I have grown to be less and less concerned the longer I’m in this position. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made – on the field and off. We inherited an organization with a shallow, poorly-rated farm system and now have talent that goes deep into the minor league system and is the envy of the major leagues. Stan and General Manager Mike Rizzo have worked tirelessly to revamp our Dominican organization and expect that to yield promising players at every position. It helps knowing the direction we’re headed and seeing evidence that the direction is the right one. Confidence that we are building the Nationals correctly eases most jabs.

4) What did you learn about owning a professional sports team from all that happened in 2009 that you can use to adapt to and improve on in years to come? How different is sports ownership from real estate and development ownership? Are there similarities?

There were quite a few valuable lessons I learned or was reminded of in 2009. I was reminded how different the second half of a season can be from the first. I learned from Nyjer Morgan just how fast a team can turn around and how exciting it is to have a smart and fast leadoff hitter. I was reminded watching Ryan Zimmerman how much fun it was watching Brooks Robinson. I was reminded how enjoyable it is having three, four and five hitters capable of knocking the ball out of the park.

More importantly, I learned not to take topical criticism to heart; that criticism fired at you one day may be absolutely reversed the next without changing a thing. I learned that the media often feeds off itself without ever having verified information. That was hard for me to grasp. I still thought there had to be a source, or truth, to an issue before it was printed or repeated. I learned otherwise, but I figured out how to avoid getting bothered by it, that tomorrow is another day.

Mostly, I am still working on learning to be more patient. I know the Nationals are moving in the right direction, and I know the pieces are falling into place, but I have to remind myself that not everyone can see what I see, and that good things often take longer to become evident than you’d like. Trust me, no one wants to win more than we do. No one is more impatient than we are.

Building a professional sports franchise is very much like the development business in that doing things right demands a good foundation, a sound design plan, a disciplined group of builders, an eye for detail and an absolute commitment to excellence. If you follow that model in sports or in building development, then you will be successful.

Obviously, the biggest difference in the two businesses is that in development you don’t get so much public attention until the work is completed. In professional sports there is always going to be public scrutiny of the work in progress. I actually enjoy watching the process. It gives me great joy in both businesses. I like seeing dreams become realities.

5) A study just released claims the greater Washington, D.C. area has more than 5.5 million residents. As an owner of the Washington Nationals, what does the team have to do to reach as many of those folks as possible and, at least, win them over as casual fans?

We are still young enough as a franchise that we have to focus on getting more fans in the habit of coming to a game at Nationals Park. I honestly believe that anyone who comes to a game will want to come more often. We have to establish a greater brand – which I think you will see happening more this year – and we have to show progress toward becoming a more consistent winner. I think there will be considerable progress made in those areas during the 2010 season.

I also would tell you that we intend to broaden our audience beyond the 5.5 million. There is no other sports franchise in America that can claim to represent the National Pastime in the Nation’s Capital. We want everyone who visits Washington, D.C. to see the White House, the Capitol, and all the monuments, to join us when they spend their summer evenings in our city. We see the Nationals becoming America’s Home Team. Our city belongs to all Americans, and we believe our team does, too. We are one Metro stop from the U.S. Capitol, and absolutely the finest sports venue to see the Capitol lights at night.

That being said, from the Opening Day pitch being thrown out by President Obama, until the very last day of our season, whenever that may be, the sights and sounds of Nationals Park make it absolutely the place to be during the summer of 2010. Our pre-game and in-game entertainment and tributes will be exciting, fun and, at times, moving. Our concessions will be second to none. And, we are constantly working on making our service the best in sports. We’ve also hired a new group of marketing executives in our front office since last season and I think you will soon be most pleased with their handiwork.

6) Understanding that dollars spent on payroll doesn’t always correlate to wins in the standings, this is a question that seems to be pondered every time someone is talking about the Washington Nationals improving their product on the field. Will ownership spend money on high salaried players to win? Whether that is via free agency, trading someone or re-signing your very own? What are your thoughts on how the Washington Nationals should handle payroll while building a winning team?

I think we have been very clear since our family bought the club that we intended to build the Nationals into a contender with a healthy combination of franchise-developed talent augmented by key acquisitions who would put us in a better position to win. We are just now in the position where we have both talent on the field and talent other teams may soon be willing to trade for. That was a big hurdle to overcome. We had to have talent before we could attract more talent.

That being said, I don’t think anyone who has knowledge of our bid for Mark Teixeira, followed by our signing of Adam Dunn, the extension to Ryan Zimmerman, or the draft signings of MLB top draft choices Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen, can argue that we haven’t opened our pocketbooks to smartly spend to get better. I also think our off-season addition of pitcher Jason Marquis, Pudge Rodriguez and others, shows a commitment to spending when we need to.

Stan Kasten, who built those great Atlanta Braves teams of the 1990s, has kept us vigilant in our plan to develop foundational talent and trade or sign for marquee players when the time, the economics and the percentages are right. I think we are on course, and I think our record during the last 15 months probably is the best answer to your question.

7) As owners, the Lerner Family has a say in Major League Baseball issues with the other 29 teams and the Commissioner’s Office. With the bidding war that recently involved the Nationals over international Cuban prospect Aroldis Chapman (who signed for a reported $32 million with the Cincinnati Reds), are you in favor of some sort of international draft, as has been discussed by Commissioner Selig?

There is no question that Commissioner Selig has a world view of the game, and all clubs are beginning to see that, too. I certainly believe that, though there are still a lot of details that need to be considered, something like that is likely going to happen. The Commissioner is approaching the subject logically and we will certainly be watching progress and taking part in any discussions. That’s as specific as I’m comfortable stating right now.

8) On the international front, are you pushing for additional scouting of young talent, not only in Latin America, but in the Pacific Rim, Europe, Australia, or even South Africa, for the Washington Nationals? The Reds bidding on Chapman was a surprise move to many, but can you regularly compete for international talent – in a free agent market – with the likes of the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels and Cubs?

You may not know this, but the Nationals were actually the second highest bidder for Chapman. We were very much in the running and went as far as Stan and Mike chose to go. I’m not sure any team did more research on Chapman than we did. However, the fact that the Reds signed him is a pretty good indication that higher revenue teams aren’t the only ones in the market.

I think every team in baseball now has an eye toward talent everywhere. We are no different. The challenge every team has is having enough eyes in as many places all over the world. However, the World Games and other such international baseball venues provide more opportunities to find more talent. The short answer to your question is that, yes, we are interested in talent from anywhere in the world.

9) Switching to a different topic – off the field. We’ve talked about this before. The ongoing land transfer issue for the federal government to the District of Columbia of Fort Dupont Park for the DC Baseball Academy. What’s the story there? I’ve heard conflicting reports.

I’m glad you asked this question because there has been some misinformation recently circulated that I’d like to correct. The city and the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation have been working together very closely and in concert to get the Fort DuPont Park site in Ward 7 transferred to the city so we can break ground. The only delays have come from the National Park Service, and I’m told that whatever issues have caused those delays are being worked out. Obviously, this has been frustrating to all of us. We have an exciting design taking shape and we’re looking forward to sharing it. This project is important to the community and it’s vital that we get underway as soon as possible. The city and the Nationals Dream Foundation expect an official announcement for the transfer to take place during 2010.

10) You have been in real estate and property development your entire life. Nationals Park was designed and built to be a centerpiece for transformation of the Anacostia Waterfront in SE Washington – before your family purchased the Washington Nationals. Clearly, the rough economy of the past few years has hindered that envisioned development of condos, businesses, bars, restaurants and shops surrounding the ballpark. Do you believe since there are fewer attractions to draw others to the surrounding ballpark district – before and after games – that has affected attendance?

Let me answer a different way, perhaps more positively. I believe that more attractions in the area will not only improve attendance, it will improve the game day – or night – experience. I also think better attendance will improve business in that part of town. We all look forward to that day.

11) And we are asking that because when you look at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, despite the fact the Pirates have not had a winning season in something like 18 years, their ballpark community thrives because it’s become a “GO-TO” destination – plenty of things to do and enjoy just across the Clemente Bridge from downtown Pittsburgh. Do you still see Florida Rock moving ahead on rebuilding their waterfront property of Potomac Avenue from a cement factory to mixed use? And is that property key to Nationals Park’s long term strength as a “GO-TO” venue?

I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, begin to answer a business question for another developer. We will continue to market Nationals Park as an entertainment destination and will welcome new development as it occurs. I think the future is bright for all kinds of development down here over the next decade. And, I think the ballpark and the new developments will certainly complement each other. As the real estate lending situation improves, I think we’ll see the Capitol Riverfront District grow and become a shining example of successful urban planning. It will be a great place for Washingtonians to work, live and play.

12) Any further thoughts on a Washington Baseball Hall of Fame at Nationals Park? What other improvements would you like to see INSIDE the ballpark?

We are always finding ways to improve the ballgame experience for Nationals fans, and, of course, there are also going to be some non-baseball concerts and entertainment opportunities at Nationals Park this year, as well. There will be new amenities and visual effects options this season in the PNC Diamond Club, a special “Red Carpet” entrance for season ticket holders will be offered at the main gate, and more standing room at the Red Porch and Red Loft will be available for folks who like to socialize while watching the game. Any specific announcements about a HOF or other considerations would be premature.

13) Finally, you are a principal owner of the Washington Nationals. You are also a partner in Lincoln Holdings with Ted Leonsis – owner of the Washington Capitals. If all the negotiations as recently reported come true – you will soon also be a partner with an ownership stake in the Washington Wizards and Verizon Center. I would imagine that is something you never envisioned growing up. Winning solves most everything, but collectively how important do you feel these three teams are to the fabric of life in the DC area? And what role do you personally play, as an owner, to help make these teams and the venues in which they play successful for years to come?

Washington, D.C. is my hometown. I love the city. I love living in the Nation’s Capital. The city stands for beauty, for power, for patriotism, for history, for tradition. There is no other city in the world like Washington, D.C. If there were no professional sports franchises it would be a wonderful place. Our pride does not begin and end with its sports teams.

However, in order to be a complete major city in America, I really believe you want to have meaningful professional sports attractions. I also think that D.C. is primed like no other American city this century to host a champion. Can you imagine the kind of energy this city felt during the Obama Inauguration directed toward a local champion? It would be amazing.

My friend Ted Leonsis has done a masterful job of building and marketing the Washington Capitals. I happen to believe Washington is on the cusp of seeing the Stanley Cup trophy residing at the Verizon Center. I cannot wait. I have no question that he will be equally successful with the Wizards. Ted is the moving force and visionary within our ownership group and we all fully support him.

Although my time is split between the Nationals and Lerner Enterprises, I devote a lot of attention to the future of the Nationals. I dream of a day when Washington, D.C. will line up 30 people deep for miles along Pennsylvania Avenue for a World Series Championship Parade. Sentimentally, and traditionally, I think there is nothing like a World Series Championship to bring a city together. And, the owners of the Nationals will continue to do everything possible to make this city and Nationals Park the very pride of all America. We truly believe Washington, D.C. is the Home of the National Pastime in the Nation’s Capital.

With that final answer, Nats320's Opening Day Chat With Mark Lerner concluded.

Photo copyrighted--Nats320--All Rights Reserved


Jeremy said...

Not to nitpick but...

"We are one Metro stop from the U.S. Capitol..."


"... and absolutely the finest sports venue to see the Capitol lights at night."

So is it safe to assume that the horrible red tent that was on top of the parking garage and totally obstructed the view of the Capitol from the Infield Gallery seats has been removed this year?

Laurie said...

Hope when you write about opening day, you mention that the Phillie fans looks bad on TV..chanting while the Nationals were being introduced. Very rude and disrespectful..of course did we expect anything less!

DND said...

Nice interview, when you get antohter chance to speak with Mr. Lerner please ask about future FM radio stations so those of us beyond the weak range of 1500 can listen to Charlie and Dave. Thanks

Anonymous said...

I would pose may of those questions to Ted as the authoritative source, no disrespect meant to his scion Mark, on those matters.

Record digger said...

I was at game..Phillies fans- most of them- are garbage. Smoking everywhere! Booing our players when introduced! Booing Z when he accepted the Silver Slugger!


Today's game was not encouraging... doesn't seem- at least today's game- to back what Lerner said in the interview..