Q&A with Nationals owner Mark Lerner
Discusses tough season, All-Star Game, long-term goals
The Nationals are having their most difficult campaign since they moved to Washington for the 2005 season. The team was 28-66 entering Thursday's action, and no one is arguably more concerned with the Nats' performance than the Lerner Group.
MLB.com reporter Bill Ladson recently caught up with principal owner Mark Lerner to talk about the Nationals and other topics surrounding the team.
MLB.com: This has been a tough season to date. What do you and Nationals fans have to look forward to in the second half of the 2009 season?
Mark Lerner: Obviously, no one is more frustrated in the first half of the season than I am, or the other owners and members of the Nationals organization. We had much higher expectations. We spent money in the off-season to bring in Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, among others, and offered what would have been the second highest salary in baseball history to Mark Teixeira before he decided to play for the Yankees. We believed in our young starting pitchers, and we thought we had the nucleus of a good, competitive young club.
All of that said, I am very much looking forward, with realistic optimism, to the second half of the season. We will be trying all kinds of combinations to create wins. We will be asking players to increase their intensity on the field and in the clubhouse. We will be emphasizing that defense wins as many games as offense. And, we will be finding out just who among our youngsters can play at a big league level.
For clubs that intend to one day win a World Series title, smart fans know to appreciate these baby steps that will translate into winning. Most every fan in World Series cities likes to point back to a point in the team's history when things began to turn around, or when players kicked into a higher gear. I want to be one of those fans, and I think most other Nationals fans do, too.
MLB.com: You currently have an interim general manager in Mike Rizzo and an interim manager in Jim Riggleman. How can you build a stable organization without permanent leaders in those positions?
Lerner: We currently have very capable individuals -- Mike Rizzo and Jim Riggleman -- performing in these important positions. I don't think either is the type to ever hold back because the word "interim" is attached to their title. I speak for my family and partners when I say we have tremendous respect for both Mike and Jim.
We admire and appreciate the stability they've brought to the team as well as their depth of knowledge and valuable guidance. However, let me be clear. We have a responsibility to conduct a proper search for both positions, and that may entail going beyond our own gates. We will not be rushed or pressured into a decision that so significantly affects our future. In the end, whoever is appointed manager and general manager, they will be the best.
MLB.com: The Lerner family has been criticized by some for being distant, even evasive. Does this criticism bother you? Should a member of the family have been at the press conference when Manny Acta was relieved of his duties and Riggleman named interim manager?
Lerner: We decided, and announced from the first day, that Stan Kasten -- a well-regarded sports executive and part owner -- was going to be the public face of the Nationals. He has done a splendid job as that public face. Our model is not, by the way, particularly novel in sports. In fact, most baseball decisions at club levels are made by team presidents or general managers. You don't often see team owners making public announcements.
I do think some of the criticism, generally, has been a little unfair. Members of my family, and other members of the ownership group, are at practically every game and certainly accessible to fans. I know I spend a lot of time walking around the park before and during games and enjoy visiting fans each night who just want to talk about the park or about the team. I also, personally, answer mail sent to me, both critical and complimentary.
I will also tell you Stan Kasten is absolutely one of the most accessible in the game. Anyone who's been to Nationals Park has seen Stan walking the park during games, chatting with fans, listening to their ideas or criticisms and telling our story.
MLB.com: Along those lines, the Lerner family and Nationals management sent an e-mail last week to fans in conjunction with the replacement of Acta. That was an unusual step. What prompted that unusual gesture and what has been the response?
Lerner: We wanted to say something more personal to fans about our feelings about the first half of the season, about our own disappointments and about our own unwillingness to accept the status quo.
We also wanted to thank fans for their patience and let them know how much we appreciate them. I have heard from fans who were very pleased to hear directly from the organization. It's important that fans know not just what we do, but also how we feel. There is nothing that steams me more than having words put in my mouth.
Often the media will try to describe what we are thinking or feeling or project our intent. These are merely "guesses," at best. We respect our fans enough to let them hear it from us directly.
The ownership of the Nationals absolutely loves the game, loves the Nationals, and loves Washington, D.C. We want our fans to know that.
MLB.com: Do you think the local sports media has been unfair to your family or the Nationals organization?
Lerner: No one is more dissatisfied with our record than we are. I certainly understand how impatient our fans must be. I do, however, think it unfair for reporters to make judgments about motivations or personality without basis for it. Performance is fair game. I'm not pleased about where we are, but I assure you we are evaluating every possible way to improve.
MLB.com: Do you, personally, think the media has been fair?
Lerners: I think the sense of fairness that allows reporters criticism of our performance on the field also requires a fairness about the good works we do in the neighborhood.
We recently hosted a huge D.C. high school baseball program at Nationals Park that allows all area D.C. public high school baseball teams to practice on our Major League field was all but ignored by our daily newspapers.
That means they are ignoring our partnership with the city, and they are ignoring the kids we are introducing to the game. A Major League Baseball franchise is considerably more than just a baseball team. It is a contributor to a community way and quality of life.
MLB.com: What's the latest on Stephen Strasburg? Can the team sign him?
Lerner: As for Stephen Strasburg, I certainly hope we will sign him. He's a great prospect, no doubt about it. I believe he will soon be wearing a Nationals uniform. We have also had great success since Draft Day in signing many of our selections.
MLB.com: Misspellings on team uniforms, issues surrounding a former GM (Jim Bowden), the replacement of a manager mid-season, inconsistent defense, struggling relief pitching, worst record in baseball -- can things get worse for the Nationals this season or is the worst behind?
Lerner: I'm not particularly superstitious, but I do think that we are on the upswing now. I think the worst is behind us. I promise you I am as optimistic as I've ever been. I love our ballpark. I love our fans. I love the direction in which we're headed. I'm excited about our young players and prospects. I love going to Nationals games. I can't imagine anything better.
MLB.com: Will Washington ever be awarded an All-Star Game? When can we expect that to happen?
Lerner: We feel very strongly that an All-Star Game should be played in Washington, D.C.. Since obtaining the franchise, we have sent numerous letters and had numerous conversations with Commissioner Bud Selig asking that he award an All-Star Game to Washington, D.C., to be played at Nationals Park. We believe there is no better place to host the event honoring the game's crown jewel of celebrations than in the home of the national pastime in the nation's capital.
We believe it would be an international experience and would draw one of the largest crowds in the game's long history. We have the restaurants, the hotels, the museums, the transportation and the sites conducive to hosting an event, and no other venue can claim to be one Metro stop from the dome of the nation's capital. It would be a monumental event here. We intend to do what it takes to bring it here.
Selfishly, it is my dream that the game be played during Bud Selig's tenure as Commissioner so my father -- who is currently 83 -- can have the opportunity to honor not just the game, but Commissioner Selig for returning baseball to the Nation's Capital after a 33-year absence. We aren't helped by having some reporters continue to negatively list the reasons we won't get the game, but believe me, getting an All-Star Game in D.C. is an absolute passion of mine. I will never rest until we get one.
MLB.com: What about the "Plan" introduced by Stan Kasten and the Lerner family when they assumed ownership of the Nationals? Is it still viable, or do you think it is necessary to do what some sportswriters are suggesting -- blow things up and start over?
Lerner: When this ownership group assumed control, Stan Kasten announced what he knew would be a controversial but most effective way to build this franchise. As he did in Atlanta, as one of the game's most renowned executives, he promised to bring a long-term credibility to the Nationals. He warned that the plan -- because of the mess we inherited -- would be smart but methodical and that patience would be necessary.
He warned that during this process, some would think he was, as he likes to say, "the village idiot." He was proven to be the village savant after his building efforts in Atlanta, and I think he will be remembered the same way here after we get over the growing pains we have to endure before we become fundamentally sound, then a winner. I won't tell you we don't get impatient ourselves. We get more impatient than most, because we know where we will be in the next several years.
Stan, however, has been a rock. He knows the plan. He lives the plan. And, he sells the plan every day. The believers will one day have a huge celebration when we lift our first World Series trophy.
My friend Ted Leonsis reminds me frequently that two years ago a local sports columnist told Washington Capitals season ticket holders they should burn their season tickets in Ted's front yard. Now, after a couple of amazing years on the ice, that same sportswriter is one who praises Ted as the best owner in D.C. The cycle on these stories is to be expected. It's frustrating for true fans to have to read, but it goes with the territory.
MLB.com: How long will the Plan take?
Lerner: I would love to tell you a time and date. That would make everybody's job easier. I think you should look at how we've operated to date. We have signed the nucleus for an impressive group of young starting pitchers. We have in Ryan Zimmerman and Jesus Flores, two of the finest young position players in the game. In the offseason we were unable to sign Mark Teixeira, but did offer him a salary that would have made him the second-highest-paid player in Major League Baseball history, behind only Alex Rodriguez. When we couldn't sign him, we signed our second-priority free agent, Adam Dunn. He's only on a pace to hit 40-plus home runs and drive in over 100 RBIs.
Other than the Yankees, we were the most aggressive free-agent buyer in the offseason. If we can continue to grow our pitching and position players and sign key free agents, then we will be in the hunt within the next couple of years. We've got to continue to find the best prospects, encourage them to greatness, and keep them healthy.
MLB.com: What are you proudest of in the franchise so far?
Lerner: Well, as I mentioned before, we inherited a franchise that was in horrific shape. There was no farm system. We had no quality prospects. There were absolutely no controls or checks and balances on the business operations side of the game. The MLB-run Nationals accounting office was still in Montreal, and we had to hire and train a brand new accounting department. And, we had to complete a new ballpark, all at the same time.
I am pleased that we worked out the early accounting issues, including some bills of MLB's that had fallen through the cracks during a very complicated transition from MLB ownership to us. We have built an effective farm system. And, we continue to make Nationals Park one of the best, if not the best in baseball.
In this offseason alone, we added new features at Nationals Park like Teddy's Barbeque, a new and better concessionaire in Levy, a Kosher Grill, major improvements to the Red Porch restaurant, and continue to train our game-day staff to be the friendliest in baseball. I assure you we are never satisfied.
MLB.com: There has been some criticism that the Lerners are tough negotiators who may be tight with a dollar. What are your feelings on this?
Lerner: I am quite proud of our business practices. In fact, one of the reasons MLB said they selected our ownership group was because they thought we would be the group most effective at holding the contract on the stadium to schedule and budget. The Commissioner has said he believes we understand that the most effective way to build a franchise is through prudent investment, not buying sprees that damage the parity of all baseball.
I'm proud that my father and my brothers-in-law have a reputation for hard work and the pursuit of excellence. I guarantee that if you know our historic work product, you will see that we do not cheat or compromise quality. We pay attention to detail. We demand accountability from ourselves and from the people who work for us. Because we do not cut corners, some critics think we're uncompromising. That is not a criticism, as far as I'm concerned. The end product will be the best in the game. That's our goal. We believe our hometown and our fans deserve nothing less than the strongest and the best.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.