Mark Lerner of Nationals Emerges as D.C. Dynasty's Voice
By Robert McCartney
Washington, D.C., April 4, 2010 - If you're a newspaper columnist and one of your high-school classmates ended up becoming a principal owner of the local baseball team, then you use the connection to try to get an interview just before Opening Day.
I started by asking Mark Lerner, fellow member of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School's Class of 1971, whether he remembered me. He was honest. "Barely," he said.
Here's what I remember about him. He was an affable guy who was really interested in sports. What I recall most, though, is how the rest of us whispered to each other: "He's a Lerner." As in, "He's really rich."
Even then, the Lerner family ranked among the region's biggest developers. They helped build Wheaton Plaza and Tysons Corner Center. They used some of that real estate wealth to buy the Nationals in 2006, a year after the team arrived in Washington.
Within the family, the one in charge is Mark's father, family patriarch Ted Lerner. Mark stands a good chance of inheriting that role someday. Meanwhile, he's the Lerner who's out in public the most. He's effectively become the principal spokesman for a family that mostly keeps to itself.
In a phone conversation and e-mail exchanges, Mark and I first got nostalgic about the Washington baseball of our youth. We both rooted for the Senators in the 1960s and early 1970s. We were both distraught for 33 seasons when the city lacked a team.
And today? Lerner defended his family against accusations that it hasn't spent enough to improve the Nationals. He assured me the team wouldn't become a persistent loser and butt of jokes like the Senators. The recurrence of such losing habits -- the Nationals have had the worst record in baseball for two straight years -- makes one wonder whether drinking Potomac water results in ineptitude on the diamond.
"The biggest difference [with the Senators] is that our current record is only temporary. There's a difference between growing pains and just plain losing pains," Lerner said. "We are committed to building a winner for the nation's capital, period."
What about complaints that you've been stingy about paying for talent?
"I don't believe it's a fair criticism," Lerner said. He noted that the Nationals have paid a lot to sign the most promising young phenom in years, fireball pitcher Stephen Strasburg, along with veterans Jason Marquis and Ivan Rodriguez. They also made a highly competitive offer to land All-Star Mark Teixeira, though the first baseman went to the Yankees.
The Teixeira episode "speaks for itself," Lerner said. "We'll do what's necessary. We have not shied away from this in the past and won't in the future."
My talk with Lerner confirmed my impression from our adolescence that he is passionately attached to the game. He readily recalled details of long-ago highlights. He remembered not only Senator Frank Howard's home run at the 1969 All-Star Game at RFK Stadium, but also that it went to center field and that the game had been delayed a day by a massive thunderstorm.
Like me, Lerner remembered being awestruck at seeing RFK when it first opened as D.C. Stadium. Today it feels outdated, but in 1961 it seemed like "a palace," he said. In particular, it didn't have pillars holding up the upper decks and blocking people's view.
As for his role today, Lerner acknowledged that he's more visible than other family members but emphasized that running the team is "truly a group effort." The other principal owners are his father, two brothers-in-law and their families. Mark's wife, Judy, who was also in our high school class, has gotten involved despite not having been much of a sports fan previously.
"I think people just see me out and about a bit more" than other family members, Lerner said. He likes to talk to fans, partly to find out what's annoying them so he can try to fix it.
Phil Wood, a veteran area baseball commentator, agreed. "He doesn't hide in the owners' box. He'll get in the stands," Wood said.
Wood also praised Lerner for bringing in experienced baseball professionals for key front-office jobs, rather than trying to do it himself. "He knows when he looks in the mirror in the morning that he's not a baseball man. He hires baseball people to make the decisions for him," Wood said.
Lerner wouldn't bite when I fished for news about the likelihood that he'd take over the family business one day. "That's nothing we dwell on right now. My dad's the managing principal owner. Hopefully he stays healthy for a long time," he said.
He chose his words carefully when asked about the Nats' prospects for their season, which begins Monday.
"I'm not ready to predict when we will contend for a championship, but I certainly believe we will continue to see pieces of that kind of contender," he said.
He shared one detail about his past that I found revealing.
For years after the Senators' departure in 1971, he said, his father Ted Lerner looked for ways to bring a team back to the city. Mark said he thought a lot about it, too.
"I visited nearly every major league ballpark in North America. I used to walk through the ballparks and fantasize about what details or amenities I would put into a park if I was ever given the opportunity," he said.
That's how rich real estate guys are different from the rest of us. I imagined myself making dramatic catches in the outfield. He fantasized about how he'd design the stadium when he owned a team.