LOVERRO: Nationals title fulfilled lifelong dream for Lerner

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One of my favorite Ted Lerner moments was in January of 2007. Lerner had been named owner of the Washington Nationals franchise in May 2006 and was on stage at the Jack Morton Auditorium at George Washington University with New York Yankees president Randy Levine.

The two George Washington graduates had been inducted as the first members of the School of Business Executives Hall of Fame.

There was a discussion about the business of baseball. Levine told the crowd that the Yankees were about “winning every year. If we didn’t win the World Series, it wasn’t a good year.”

Lerner said with a smile, “I might add, we’re not really concerned with the World Series this year.”

No, not in 2007. But Lerner was most definitely concerned about his baseball team winning a World Series. He was born on the day the Washington Senators lost Game 7 in the 1925 World Series — a year after the Senators won their one and only title,

Lerner, a baseball fan who worked as an usher at games at Griffith Stadium while growing up before becoming a Washington real estate magnate, wouldn’t see his hometown team in the World Series until 2019.    

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“Ninety-five years is a pretty long wait. But I’ll tell you, this is worth the wait,” the Nationals owner told fans after his club defeated the Houston Astros for the 2019 championship. “This is for the city that’s always believed, the players that always fought and the fans that were with us every step of the way.”

On that day, the Yankees were home nursing their wounds from their defeat in the American League Championship Series to the Astros.

On that day, it was Levine who took a back seat to Lerner, world champion. That is a big part of the legacy of the Nationals owner, who passed away Sunday at the age of 97 of complications from pneumonia.

It’s a legacy as rich as that of any lifelong resident of Washington. He built one of the biggest real estate empires in the region — homes, apartment buildings, offices and shopping centers, including Tysons Corner and Tysons Corner II in Northern Virginia. According to Forbes magazine, his family’s net worth is $6.6 billion.

It’s a legacy evidenced in the many charitable endeavors of Lerner and his surviving wife, Annette. And in the efforts of the Lerner family foundation in support of such institutions as the Children’s National Hospital, George Washington University, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and others.

It is a resume that gives you more than a few pages of the history of this area. But Lerner wanted more. Whatever seeds were planted in him in those days as an usher at Griffith Stadium, they took root in his desire to own a sports franchise.

He tried to buy the Baltimore Orioles when they were put up for sale in 1979 by Jerold Hoffberger, losing out to prominent Washington lawyer and Washington Redskins owner Edward Bennett Williams. Lerner had been part of the effort to bring baseball back to the District since his beloved Senators left for Arlington, Texas, following the 1971 season.

He was also a bidder for the Redskins when they were put up for sale in 1999, following the death of Jack Kent Cooke. That time he lost out to a little-known young businessman named Dan Snyder. Snyder may have beaten out Lerner for the football team but has since lost consistently to Lerner in the measure of what the owner of a professional sports team can give to a community — what he or she can leave behind. What will they say about Skipper Dan the Sailing Man when it is time to write about what he left behind?

Legacies are complex, especially for those who accomplish what Lerner did. His is a complicated story. He was known for his philanthropy, but also had a reputation for being very difficult to do business with, leaving in his wake those who learned that tough lesson.

He owned a baseball franchise that went from last place to a World Series championship in a relatively short amount of time. But as tough a businessman as he was, Lerner had his blind spots. Continuing to employ a clown like Jim Bowden as general manager after taking over ownership of the franchise from Major League Baseball was one of them, saved by Bowden’s own self-destruction and the Smiley Gonzalez Dominican Baseball signing scandal that forced Lerner to fire Bowden. He also often fell victim to the sales pitches of baseball agent Scott Boras, sometimes to the detriment of his baseball organization.

But Lerner managed to save his baseball legacy by hiring Mike Rizzo, who former co-owner and team president Stan Kasten brought on as an assistant general manager, and has since kept Rizzo on as general manager and president of baseball operations — albeit with short-term deals — to operate one of the most successful franchises in baseball from 2012 to 2019. He had stepped down in 2018 as managing principal owner, handing off control to his son Mark. But make no mistake about it — the business and direction of the franchise were still under the leadership of Ted Lerner.

The Lerner empire, like much of the country, took a big hit from the COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic hit both his real estate empire and his baseball team, which missed the chance to fully capitalize on the 2019 World Series championship. Now after several years of losses, the team is for sale, but that process is being held hostage by the horrendous MASN television deal — one that baseball, not Lerner, made with Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

You live nearly 100 years and become one of the richest and most powerful people in the nation’s capital, there are going to be missteps, miscues and mistakes. But the totality of Lerner’s place on this earth is one of triumph. He was likely confident of that when he sat on the stage at his alma mater and feigned taking a back seat shortly after finally realizing his dream of owning a sports team. He was in it to win it, and he finally did.

You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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