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While the Washington Nationals’ footprint in Southeast D.C. is marked by game-day hoopla, the team’s philanthropy—led by Marla Lerner Tanenbaum, JD ’83—is pointed across the Anacostia River.

May 2, 2019 |  Danny Freedman, GW Magazine

From a singular moment of stillness, a hailstorm of plush balls erupts in the air overhead. The teams thin out quickly. 

One kid goes down, then theatrically drags himself out of the line of dodgeball fire and onto the sidelines to join the fallen.

“You out, you out, you out,” a teenage boy says, pointing, as he makes his way down the line with a smirk from inside the game. 

This is the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. And so is the kitchen upstairs, piled high this bracing January evening with apples and snacks before a hot dinner is served. So are the classrooms, where kids are doing homework with tutors, or sometimes building birdhouses or learning to meditate. So is the “Field of Greens” garden. So are the on-site eye exams and dental checkups for the 150 or so kids who, like those dodgeballers, are enrolled in the academy’s signature program: a free, three-day-per-week after-school program (and all-day, five days per week in summer). It’s open only to kids nearby, in D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8, who can come year-round from third grade through eighth. Buses pick them up from school to be sure getting here isn’t an issue.

There’s baseball, too: three impeccable turf diamonds; skills are drilled; science and math get the peanuts-and-cracker-jack treatment, where home runs are studied as geometry. For more than 800 other kids, there are year-round baseball and softball clinics, and travel teams for both sports. The academy’s also home field to last year’s D.C. Little League champs, the first all-African-American team to win the title in the league’s 31 years. Most of the team’s players learned the game at the academy.

The term “youth baseball academy,” though, almost seems a misnomer. It wasn’t built to turn out prospective players, or even fans, in a town that went 33 years without a Major League Baseball franchise, and in an era where the percentage of African-American MLB players withered to single digits and stuck there. The academy, instead, is a nearly $18 million complex in Southeast D.C.—half a mile from where a 17-year-old was shot dead on the street one Wednesday afternoon last year—that seems designed at an atomic level to meet neighborhood kids and families where they stand. 

And for Marla Lerner Tanenbaum, JD ’83, it’s a start.

A member of the family ownership that bought the Washington Nationals in 2006—including her father and mother, Ted Lerner, AA ’48, BL ’50, and his wife, Annette; her brother Mark Lerner, BBA ’75, and his wife, Judy; her sister Debra Cohen and Cohen’s husband, Ed; and Lerner Tanenbaum’s husband, Robert, JD ’82—she built and leads the team’s philanthropic arm: the donation- and grant-giving Washington Nationals Dream Foundation and the Youth Baseball Academy, which opened in March 2014. 

Visiting the academy the next year, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said it represented the league “at its best. What the Nationals have done here is unbelievable.” In a statement for this article, he said Lerner Tanenbaum’s efforts already have produced “a lasting impact on children and families.”

Now, with the two nonprofits recently merged, Lerner Tanenbaum is looking toward a significant widening of the team’s role in the city.

In this edited interview from her office at Nationals Park, Lerner Tanenbaum spoke about the yearslong grind to build the academy, the future of the team’s philanthropy and her view of the Nationals as a “public trust.”

How did the Dream Foundation come about?

The team came to Washington in 2005; we became owners in 2006. There was so much to do at that point, and it was clear which paths most of us were going to take. I’d had some experience in foundations and it was what interested me, so I started exploring what this means for us: When we create a baseball organization, how do we create the philanthropy? What’s the standard in Major League Baseball and who is outstanding?

I thought the Red Sox were really the standard of excellence, and it’s what I wanted us to aspire to be. Not only did they do a lot that was really effective, but their name recognition within Red Sox Nation was almost on par with the Red Sox themselves. People immediately knew, “Oh yeah, the Red Sox—their scholars, their Jimmy Fund.” I thought we should aspire to that.

Then the next step was to determine what are the needs of the community. Our first initiative for the foundation was the Diabetes Care Complex at Children’s National.

Was the idea always that there would be a foundation attached to the team?

There was never a question about that. One way or another people expect you, as a major sports organization, to be philanthropic. So if you want to do it in an organized fashion you really need to create a foundation and not have the expectation always be, “Well, the Lerners should do that.” The expectation is that the team should do that. It’s bigger and more profound than just our family. And there are things that sports organizations can do—people just love baseball. I was so struck by that my first year. I’ve raised money for other organizations, [but with this] people were just like, “Baseball? Where do I sign?”

What was it like for you when you started looking into the city’s issues and where the organization could help? 

Well you always have to remind yourself that perfection is the enemy of the good. I don’t have academic credentials in urban planning or poverty, nor am I a government agency, yet it’s essential to have direction or else you’re just going to get picked to bits by people. So our first direction was children. That gave us an overarching way to look at things. 

So the Youth Baseball Academy came after the Dream Foundation?

No, it came at the same time … It just took a very long time.

Tell me about that.

The YBA was basically a letter agreement, one page—I can still see the format in my brain because I looked at it so much—that was a side agreement to the overarching, massive contract. [D.C. Council Member] Vince Gray [BS ’64] was the one who said: Wait a minute, we’re not getting enough from Major League Baseball. We want a baseball academy. And he knew about the Compton Youth Academy, which was at the time, I believe, Major League Baseball’s only academy for training future Major League players. And Vince, bless his heart, said, Wait, you’ve got to do something for us in that regard. 

He was a huge baseball player in his day, so he wanted that and threw that in—but with enough [detail] to make it dangerous and not enough to give you any guidance. It was basically: The Nationals shall contribute $1 million and the city shall contribute the land. And that was it. 

So what do you do with that? You could do a million things. I think we could’ve just written a check for a million dollars and the city could’ve just taken it. But I knew that the private sector needed to do this if it was going to be good.

The family agreed we should be the lead on this, but the city was supposed to provide the land. The city chose this land that they would lease to us in Fort Dupont Park, which they had no control over; it was National Park Service land. So then we’re off and running, working with the federal government. But that was a huge process. It took six years. And I was told that was expedited.

That was a lonely time; there were some long years there. But when it came together, it came together fast.

The silver lining is it gave us a lot of time to think about what we wanted to do there, what we wanted to build, and it changed as we talked to different people. 

Harlem RBI [now known as Dream] was basically our model, because education was a big part of its after-school program. 

We just felt like we’re not going to build a baseball academy in the sense of Compton—Washington is not that kind of town. We’re not a sunshine-12-months-a-year town, and we’re not going to put that in Ward 7 or 8 and expect that baseball players are going to be coming out of the walls. We haven’t had baseball in a generation here. What the city needs is more after-school opportunities to keep kids safe, so education was always going to be a part of it.

Did people think this was more of a talent-scouting center? 

Yes. People assumed we were going to charge the kids; we were never going to charge. And we wanted it to be clear that these kids were going to come from Wards 7 and 8 only. We just wanted the city to feel confident in that, and we wanted the neighborhoods to feel [confident] that we’re not going to charge the kids. That’s not what this is about—and they don’t have to be good at baseball. We expect that they won’t know anything about baseball. 

And the neighborhoods were on board?

Absolutely. And now I feel that they are very protective of the facility. In the beginning there was a little bit of vandalism, but once the community got to know us, that disappeared. And we have adult community programs, too, so even if you don’t have kids that are that age, you can participate in some of our nutrition programs. 

What do you see as the role of baseball at the YBA?

Well I guess it’s the core part of it. Programs like this, and there are wonderful ones that do ice skating and golf, I think all of the people who run those look on that sport as the carrot to get the kid in. We wouldn’t be who we are without the baseball—but the baseball wouldn’t really be supported unless there were the academics and the nutrition and the mentoring; they’re symbiotic.

What’s been the impact?

I look at those boys and girls who just want more programs, just want to come and work on their skills on a day when we don’t have the core program at the YBA; seeing these kids go off to high school and identifying themselves as academy kids; seeing those kids go to the Little League [Mid-Atlantic Regionals], and they’re a group, they’re cohesive. I’m not there all the time but when I hear these stories, I must say it really does get to me. I think that it’s just an amazing support for kids that are in really challenging circumstances. 

What’s been the impact on you?

This is going to sound cheesy, but I really feel like I was super lucky to be at the right place at the right time. My kids were about to leave home, and it gave me—just at the time in my life when I was looking for it—a great goal to get this going. And I could see, just raising three kids in privileged circumstances, how much support kids need, and my kids were lucky enough to have two parents and schools and all that. Sometimes it does take a village. So it was a great opportunity for me to give back to the city that my family is from. It’s just been really wonderful.

Have there been things that surprised you about this job?

I don’t think any of the other baseball organizations or clubs look on us as competitors, and nor do we them. So many teams have come to see our academy because they want to replicate it in their own vision, like at the beginning when I went and knocked on some doors, asked some questions. We are still doing that.

People like Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon are two of our players who’ve been amazing. I think they see the value in what we’re doing. So I was surprised and pleased by how any Washington National, when asked, has been like, Yeah, I’ll come over. Bryce Harper came over, at times completely unannounced; no photo op, just wanted to be there. Max Scherzer has been unbelievable, as has his wife. I’m surprised that these very busy people see all that this small little organization has to offer and they dive right in.

As for the kids, really baseball was like completely foreign to all of them. We haven’t had a baseball team in nearly 35 years, so we expected kind of that baseball wasteland. How quickly that’s turned around has been a surprise to me. I didn’t think we’d be able to field that many kids, this many leagues, as we are at this point. And some of these kids are really into it. They want as much instruction as they can get. 

Are there things about the city that your eyes have been opened to?

I was born and raised in Maryland and went to school in D.C., but I feel like I knew 5 percent of the city. And now my eyes are open to so many more people and neighborhoods, I have such different kinds of connections. Honestly I think for most people who live outside of Wards 7 and 8, they may have never been there. I’ve just become a huge advocate for that part of the city.

You see how the city is just changing—I mean look at the construction right outside my office, all of the cranes—but for the people east of the Anacostia not too much has changed. 

What do you see for the long term, now that the Dream Foundation and the YBA are one entity?

We created a bigger vision for the work that we do. We want more fan and player engagement with philanthropic projects. Not just our projects, but fan and player projects and we would become a conduit, a way for them to create and execute.

We’re experimenting with it. We’ve been doing something along those lines all along, but now we really want to engage the fans in a more substantive way. Rather than: Send us $100 and we’ll do this, let’s put a team together to work on this project in Ward 4 or 5 or 6, whatever. We’re looking more to be seen and to act as a civic organization, as taking more responsibility and broadening our mission to do more things in this city.

I’d read there was some movement toward getting involved in affordable housing?

Yes, that’s a broader, bigger project. It’s more like a revitalization of a neighborhood. It’s been done in other communities. Like in Atlanta, they brought a charter school into a neighborhood where people didn’t want to live or go to school, and they made it so outstanding that it brought in development and revitalized a neighborhood. I don’t know whether we can do it in that way here, but we’re looking at it and looking to do it east of the river. 

We’ve gone down to Atlanta and spent a day with them, and what we learned is we haven’t put nearly enough thought into this. We need to just think about this for a couple of years and how we would approach it, because you don’t want to fail. You’d be letting a lot of people down.

Did you feel any of that pressure with setting up the Youth Baseball Academy?

It’s funny, talking to you is reminding me of some restless nights. I always described it to people like I was trying to tap dance faster than I was capable. You’re trying to keep the project moving yet not promise too much. It was a very delicate maneuver. Sometimes I would get a document from the city and I’d realize we can’t do it if those are the terms. There were some difficult moments.

You weren’t worried whether the academy would succeed, it was just about that infinity of logistics falling into place?

Well if they didn’t fall into place, it wasn’t going to happen. We didn’t have a Plan B for the land [if the transfer didn’t happen].

The team has this very public face—the stadium, the fans, the merchandise. But there’s this other side of the organization that’s also laying roots, which most people may not be aware of. I’m curious what you think of that.

Well the baseball team is privately owned, but it is also like a public trust. We’re lucky enough to manage that at this point, our family, and now we kind of look at it like what we do off the field is almost as important as what we do on the field. It wouldn’t be possible without the on-field, so I have to acknowledge that importance. But good times and bad—and there will be good and bad times ahead on the field—we will always have this work that we’ve done, and we can always be proud of that.

I always joke when people are questioning what we’re doing: Look at me as insurance. One day, when you have a disappointing season, people will say, “Yeah, but they’re doing such good work.” 

 

GW Magazine |  photos: Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy

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