December 3, 2023

A Restless Farewell

April 14, 2022 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s closing time and the moment where Ted Lerner, as the CEO of the Washington Nationals, will bid adieu. His family has announced that they intend to sell the Washington Nationals team and have begun the process of inviting bids and negotiating the final sale.

Dylan ends his ballad, “Restless Farewell,” about his early tribulations with criticism and unfaithful friends, saying he will “bid farewell and not give a damn.” The sentiment sounds right for old Ted, now 96. Neither the old man nor any of the rest of the Lerner family will certainly care a whit what the public thinks or says about them as the first owners of the Washington Nationals baseball team. The family is too busy counting the money they have made.

Mayor of Washington, DC, Anthony Williams, put together the public financing package that paid for the construction of Nationals Stadium which became integral to Major League Baseball agreeing to relocate the Montreal Expos to DC. The price tag for the stadium was almost $700 million, supported largely by $535 million in public bonds.

In the lease agreement with the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission, which retains ownership of Nationals Park, the Lerners agreed to pay for a small array of improvements to the park, but unlike many baseball parks that were built as public-private partnerships, the Lerners paid almost nothing. More in keeping with their public persona, the Lerners attempted to litigate against the Sports Commission, but when those tasteless efforts generated such bad press at the time, they largely abandoned them.

As tenuous as the deal with Bud Selig to bring baseball was, the Lerners did nothing to help. They sat on the sidelines until the dust had settled, and they then bought the completed project and the team for $450 million. The current valuation for the team in 2021 was set by Forbes Magazine at $2 billion. There is every reason to believe the Nationals will fetch that much money and perhaps more. Although the old Senators fans worry that the team could be moved again, the value of the Nationals is predicated on its status as one of the dozen largest media markets in the country.

Despite having a television rights deal with the Mid Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) that gives almost everything to Orioles ownership–the price for Peter Angelos allowing baseball in DC–the long-term outlook for baseball in DC is far more secure than in the city immediately to the north. The District of Columbia is the ninth most rapidly growing city in the United States, by percentage, according to the 2020 Census. That underlying dynamic of economic growth has fueled the rise in the value of the Nationals franchise and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Against that rosy outlook, the Lerners have spent the least possible on developing their team. At the beginning of the season, they promised to fix that, but within a remarkably short time announced their intent to begin the process of selling the team rather than spend that kind of money on something they know bupkus about. During the fifteen years the Lerners owned the Nationals, they did spend less money on scouting and minor league player development than any other team because they had all the help they needed in Scott Boras.

If I have failed to characterize Mr. Boras as anything less than inherent evil, please accept my apologies. But for all of his adverse impact on the sport overall and the ability of the average U.S. sports fan to attend a game, no one has had more success blowing smoke into the internal workings of the Nationals.

The Lerners were gifted with the overall number one pick in the Baseball draft in each of their first two years as owners. They responded by taking Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper respectively, two generational talents the likes of which have not been seen in back-to-back drafts since then. Both were represented by Boras and there was considerable skepticism that the Nationals’ new owners had the acumen to land such high-priced talents. But they did. And the money was well spent because it created a tsunami of interest in baseball in the Nation’s Capital.

When Stephen Strasburg began making his way to the big leagues the following spring, his first game in Altoona, PA was covered by every network. I was there, so this outlet was likewise represented. Same for Harper. When Strasburg threw 100 mph gas during his first game at Nationals Park, the place was overflowing with fans cheering every fastball. Again, this outlet was there.

But the point is that fans began to attend games and spend money when doing so. If the television revenues were limited, the money from gate receipts and concessions boomed as though the country was in an unparalleled economic boom. Which it was, and it resulted in Washington raking in more stadium money than all but ten teams.

But what those superstars did for baseball in DC, was instill a belief that the game is won by extraordinary talent. And that is certainly true, but one of the two most successful teams in the history of the game, the St. Louis Cardinals, have forged their dominance with the most extensive player development organization in the history of the game, one that has allowed that city to compete on an even playing field with the long-dominant Bronx Bombers who have always just opened their very deep pockets and bought what they needed.

The antithesis of the Cardinals can be found at Nationals Park, where the only World Series win was fueled by superstars like Strasburg, Rendon, Zimmerman, and Soto. Or so the Lerners believe. Because beneath the Major League level, there was little or nothing going on in their minor league organization. To supplement the Boras clients, the Nationals picked up cheap talent like Howie Kendrick and Gerrardo Parra to fill out the roster. Other than the stars, all taken with top-ten, first-round draft picks, the Nationals 2019 roster had almost not a single other player developed within the organization. It was all brought in from outside, either by trade or free-agent signing.

The Lerners built their fortunes on commercial and office real estate development. What two things have most been impacted by COVID, other than of course our friends and families? Real estate of all kinds. Vacancy rates for retail and office space is at all-time highs, and fortunes made in such businesses have been hit hard. What is a poor billionaire to do?? “The “Know when to hold them, know when to fold them” Lerners have the answer. You sell the one asset they have whose value has soared–the Washington Nationals, in order to ride out the storm of what is devaluing everything else they own.

No doubt the Lerners will cry fat crocodile tears over the Washington Nationals. They will lament ending their commitment to baseball and wax poetic about their World Series win in 2019, and all they have done for their hometown fans. But enough already. Let’s move on, which is what the Lerner family is doing. What’s next for the Nationals? That is the operative question of the day.

The things that David Rubinstein, CEO of the Carlyle Group, is known for are repairing the Washington Monument when it began to show its age; caring for the elephants and pandas at the National Zoo in DC, and for beautiful additions so that people can better appreciate the history of the area with state-or-the-art visitor centers at Monticello and Montpelier, where two of the Nation’s earliest statesmen lived near the DC metro area. The list of Rubinstein’s philanthropic endeavors is long and deep. By contrast, the list for the Lerner family includes Lerner’s Alma Mater, George Washington University, and little else.

Nationals fans should be giddy at the idea that a baseball fan like Rubinstein might purchase the team. Not since Abe Pollen bought the basketball and hockey teams in the DC area, and with his personal fortune built them a glistening arena at the Verizon Center, has the city known another person of such singular philanthropic stature.  The door cannot close on the Lerners fast enough for me.

Maybe the sale of the team will not go well. Maybe the Lerners will have the last laugh and will sell to some out-of-town group with no interest in the city or its long and tragic sports legacy. But even the Lerners have a name that must not collect ill will. Hopefully, their profit motivations will force them to find a buyer who will find local favor and do well by our fan base.

Easter and Passover will fall on the same weekend this year. Dylan would likely find meaning in that; the man who was located his museum and archives in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city to which he owes no loyalty, except that of his mentor Woody Guthrie. Dylan is shining a light on the old communist songwriter by sitting his own museum next to that of the man who wrote “This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land,” in order to honor him. It is a selfless and sentimental thing to do. I am hoping baseball will find such a person to do honor to our long history in the game of baseball. Let us pray.


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