The Washington Nationals are clinging to a one-run lead in the top of the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Ted Lerner is fidgety.
Two innings earlier, the Nationals had loaded the bases with no outs. Shortstop Felipe Lopez popped out. Second baseman Ronnie Belliard hit into a double play.
“We would be .500 now if we could get a single at the appropriate time,” Lerner says. For a man known for saying little, this amounts to a long sentence.
Lerner is among the region’s most successful businessmen, with an estimated net worth of $1.5 billion. Leading his family enterprises, he built the Tysons Corner malls, other shopping malls in the Maryland suburbs, office buildings in DC and beyond, Dulles Town Center, and thousands of homes.
Yet he remains somewhat of a mystery. He’s not reclusive, just quiet. Now that he owns the Washington Nationals, he might have to crack open a few windows into his world.
Lerner is sitting in the corner of his box. He drove himself to RFK Stadium from his downtown DC offices in his newly leased black Lexus. He’s wearing jacket and tie. Chin in hand, he peers over home plate. “At least we’re ahead,” he says.
Lerner is surrounded by family this chilly Wednesday evening in April. His daughter, Marla, shows up, her ponytail bouncing through the back of a Nationals cap. Her husband, Bob Tanenbaum, roots for the Nats and razzes me, a native of Philadelphia and a Phillies fan. Son Mark sits to his father’s left. Ted earlier had dinner with Bill Schweitzer, the lawyer who runs Major League Baseball’s Washington office. David Bonderman, a high-powered Texas financier who joined Lerner in a failed bid to buy the Redskins, chats and nibbles. Food in the owner’s box isn’t much better than what’s served to fans. There’s no wine, no beer—and no bathroom. The Lerners and their guests have to leave the box and walk up a flight of stairs and down a hall to share a bathroom with the press.
No wonder they agreed to pay $2 million to install bathrooms in the suites in the new Nationals stadium rising on the banks of the Anacostia River.
In the top of the eighth, Nats reliever Jon Rauch retired the Phillies without a whimper. Lerner hoped Rauch would stay in to pitch the ninth and bring home the win. Chad Cordero, the Nats’ closer, has been shaky.
In the top of the ninth inning, Lerner watches Cordero take the mound.
“I don’t understand,” he says.
He looks to his left into the other section of the owner’s box. Through the glass wall he can see Nats president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden.
Lerner gets up. “I just want to ask a question,” he says. He walks out into the hall and reappears next to Kasten and Bowden. All three are looking out on the baseball diamond. No one smiles. Kasten folds his arms across his chest. Bowden shoves his hands in his pockets.
I reconstruct their conversation something like this:
lerner: Why didn’t Rauch get to pitch the ninth inning? He shut them down last inning.
kasten: It’s not our call. Manny Acta makes that decision. He’s the manager; Cordero is his closer.
Bowden says very little.
The Phillies score a run. Cordero blows the save.
The game goes into extra innings.
Buying the Washington Nationals for $450 million last May was a dream come true for Ted Lerner, local boy made good. Seventy years ago he was a Depression-era kid who sold copies of the Saturday Evening Post magazine door to door so he could scrape together 25 cents for bleacher seats to watch the Senators play in Griffith Stadium. Now he’s writing $4-million checks for the best scoreboard money can buy for the Nationals.
Owning the Nationals may become Ted Lerner’s greatest challenge.
For most of his 81 years he has kept his head down, his mouth shut, and his days filled with work and family. Ted is not known as a control freak; he likes to delegate and trusts his colleagues. But he is used to calling the shots. As owner of a baseball franchise, he can’t even order his team president to tell the general manager to tell the field manager not to switch pitchers.
“I am comfortable with that arrangement,” he tells me. “Running the team is in the hands of professionals like Stan Kasten.”
But can the Lerners stay comfortable in the new world of sports ownership?
Sports franchises entail lots of unpredictability, complexity, personality conflict, and public scrutiny beyond anything the Lerners have had to confront.
Take the new stadium being built with $611 million in public funds. For the first time, the Lerners will be tenants rather than landlords. The stadium owners are politicians atop a DC government fabled for infighting and dysfunction.
“There’s a natural tension there,” says Jack Evans, the DC councilmember most closely associated with bringing baseball to Washington. “Everybody wants the stadium to be the best it can be—but they want somebody else to pay for it.”
Fans are fickle—they don’t like teams that lose. The Lerners talk about taking the long view, investing in the farm system and building a stable, winning franchise. How long will fans stick with a losing team?
Says Evans: “At the end of the day, you have to win.”
Sportswriters are always ready to pounce; sports-radio jocks thrive on skewering owners and managers.
Then there are the players. More than a few are prima donnas who have been coddled since they were kids. In their early twenties, they make millions; when Ted Lerner was their age, he was working 18-hour days and begging bankers for small loans to build small houses.
The Lerners brought Stan Kasten into the fold to be team president and the family’s public face. In the owner’s box, he tells me they are “very sober” in understanding that their lives will have to change.
Kasten says he did give them one piece of advice: “Rip out the sports-talk-radio button from their car radios.”
On a rainy Sunday morning in April, Ted Lerner greets me in his company’s office building next to White Flint Mall. Like Lerner, the office building is understated and easily missed next to the glitzy mall.
The book on Lerner is that he’s a tough businessman. If that’s the case, his toughness comes from his roots in working-class Washington in the Depression and World War II.
“It’s hard for you to remember,” he says. “Things were difficult in those days.”
Lerner is compact and trim. He speaks softly and rarely shows emotion. His smile, the few times he smiles, seems genuine. He’s approached my interview, which he tried to avoid to the last day, as if it were a visit to the dentist. His daughters, Marla and Debra, say he’s just shy.
Ted Lerner’s father, Mayer, came to the United States in 1921 from Palestine. “He was the first in the family to leave,” says Lerner. “He felt America offered opportunity.”
His mother, Ethel, came from Lithuania. His parents settled in Washington in the neighborhood along Georgia Avenue. In those days an immigrant community thrived in that area of Northwest DC. There were Jews and Italians, Greeks and Irish. Georgia Avenue around Otis Street, where the Lerner family lived in a narrow rowhouse, was largely Jewish. He grew up in an Orthodox home and followed kosher dietary laws. Ted was Ethel and Mayer’s firstborn, followed seven years later by brother Lawrence and then sister Esther.
“Rye bread was nine cents,” Ted says. “I remember chickens being plucked and koshered on Georgia Avenue. Posin’s was our delicatessen. We got around by walking or taking streetcars.”
Lerner attended Raymond Elementary School. He ran track at McFarland Junior High. He graduated from Roosevelt High in 1944. The caption under his yearbook picture reads, “Quiet Ted has done much to keep Roosevelt a top-rated high school.” His gym teacher was Red Auerbach, later to become a legendary Boston Celtics basketball coach.
“I sprained my ankle one day playing intramural basketball,” Lerner recalls. “Auerbach put me in his car and drove me home. He was a great gym teacher.”
Bowie Kuhn, who later became Major League Baseball commissioner, was his friend and classmate. Jimmy Moshovitis, who also would do well in Washington real estate, went through school with Lerner and stays in touch with him.
“We were all poor,” Moshovitis says, “but we didn’t know it. Nobody gave a thought to money. We were immigrant children born to hardworking people.”
Two things defined Lerner’s early life.
At Roosevelt High, he learned to type and became editor of Rough Rider, the school newspaper. After graduating, he was drafted into the Army, went to basic training in Texas for six months, and boarded a train to fight the Nazis in Europe.
“An officer boarded the train, called my name, and took me off,” he says. “They needed a typist at the base.”
Most of the men in his unit fought at the Battle of the Bulge. “Not many of them survived,” he says.
After the war, Lerner enrolled in George Washington University, thanks to the GI Bill. The summer before he started class, his father became ill. On Lerner’s 21st birthday, his father died of pancreatic cancer with his son by his side.
“The responsibility for the family was certainly in my court,” he says.
I ask Jimmy Moshovitis if Ted Lerner deserves the “tough-guy” tag.
“It means you work hard, you work the best deals, you give your word—you live by it and you die by it,” he says. “Ted started with nothing. If he was a sissy, he wouldn’t be here.”
One day Moshovitis and I are walking along the north side of L Street from 19th Street toward 18th. At the corner, he stops and points to the Washington Square office building that fills the block from Connecticut to 18th.
“See that corner?” he asks. “There was a gas station there when Ted developed it.”
The year was 1982. Lerner partnered with Albert “Sonny” Abramson to build a landmark office building. They still own it. Lerner’s downtown offices are on the ground floor. Why not take the penthouse?
He scoffs: “We rent the top floor.”
Lerner got a law degree from George Washington University in 1949, but he didn’t practice law for long.
“I was always interested in real estate,” he says. “I started selling homes on weekends when I was in law school. I have an instinct for it.” He opened T.N. Lerner and Company at 1319 F Street, Northwest. He shared space with law-school buddies. Rent was $13.41 a month.
Washington was growing after the war; the federal government was expanding, and government workers were looking for homes in the suburbs. Lerner sold thousands of homes in College Park and Wheaton.
What did he do for fun? Did he eat out?
“I couldn’t afford it,” he says. “I just worked. I took off for Jewish holidays and a Redskin game or two. It was nothing to do 18-hour days.”
Word of Lerner’s dedication and his dealmaking got around. He was able to walk down F Street and borrow money from the president of the National Bank of Washington. In the early 1960s, he joined developers like Isadore Gudelsky to develop shopping centers. The first was Wheaton Plaza. With Sonny Abramson he built Landover Mall and White Flint Mall.
In the 1960s, Lerner set his sights on the wide-open spaces known as Tysons Corner. Largely on his own, he started buying and leasing hundreds of acres of farmland. “The only building was a log-cabin grocery store about as big as my office,” he says. “There was no Beltway.”
When the new roads brought families and shoppers, Lerner built two Tysons Corner malls and office buildings.
He would go on to buy thousands more acres in the 1980s around Dulles International Airport and beyond. He brought his son and sons-in-law into the business. They are building Dulles Town Center, a small city. The family owns property to develop seven more office buildings around Tysons and enough land to keep busy for 40 years.
What does Lerner like best about the business? The land? The machinery? The construction?
“The deal,” he says. “Putting it all together.”
Lerner’s genius, according to real-estate professionals, was knowing where and when to buy property—and having the cash to hold it until it was ready to develop. Take the roaring 1980s, when downtown DC became a Monopoly board. Investors from Japan and Saudi Arabia bid up land and buildings. Brokers brought deals to Lerner; he said the prices were too high and sent them away.
“They don’t make good sense,” he said.
Instead, Lerner put his cash into raw land around Dulles Airport.
Real-estate brokers would organize bus trips to the hinterlands and see huge tracts owned by the Lerners. “We would shake our heads and laugh,” one broker told me.
No one’s laughing now. Many high-flying magnates went broke in the 1990 real-estate crash.
The only public criticism of the Lerners has resulted from Landover Mall. Opened in 1972, the mall lost tenants as retailers failed in Prince George’s County. Lerner couldn’t fill the empty mall, shuttered it in 2002, and bulldozed the buildings. County officials accused the Lerners of ignoring the property in favor of malls in largely white suburbs.
“You can’t force something to work there,” says Ed Cohen, one of Lerner’s sons-in-law. “We will build something there, but we don’t know yet what that will be.”
If Ted Lerner’s business style tells us anything about how his baseball ownership might play out, it is that he buys at the right time, builds quality properties, and rarely sells. He never speculates or flips. He thinks decades into the future.
Did he take risks along the way? He spreads his hands on his curved wooden desk. “In order to be successful, I had to take chances, and I took a number of them,” he says. “I never worried about it, though. I never brought it home.”
Home for Ted Lerner and his wife of 55 years, Annette, is a tan, chateau-style house at the northern edge of Chevy Chase. It stands out among the split-level ranches for its size. The landscaping along the half-moon drive has a Japanese touch, but there are no statues of lions by the door. It is stately rather than a McMansion.
The Lerners moved here in 1964 with their three children.
“When they went to college,” he says, “we remodeled a little bit.”
Lerner met Annette Morris in 1948 at a fraternity dance at the Hamilton Hotel at 14th and K streets. They married in 1951. They lived in apartments near Walter Reed Army Medical Center in DC’s Brightwood neighborhood. Mark, Debra, and Marla were born in that order.
“I came home for dinner with the family every night,” Lerner says. “I had an office on Georgia Avenue in those days, two blocks away from the apartment. I would eat, go back to the office, and work until 2 am.”
In 1957, they moved to a modest home in Wheaton before settling into Chevy Chase seven years later.
I ask Lerner when he felt wealthy. He laughs. “I couldn’t pin it down,” he says. “Maybe in 1987 when we built our home in California.” It’s a house in Palm Springs where they spend part of the year. “Maybe it was when we built Wheaton Plaza. Money came along with it. I was 35. But it was never about the money.”
How did he and his wife handle wealth as they raised the three kids?
“We were able to shield them from the fact that we were doing quite well,” he says. “We lived in the same house. No fancy cars. It was deliberate. We played it down as long as we could.”
I put the same question to Lerner’s three children.
“We never felt a sense of entitlement,” says Mark. “We never took things for granted.”
Debra Lerner Cohen, 51, took cues from her mother. “She was a hands-on mom,” she tells me. “Those were prenanny days. She drove us to Hebrew school, ballet class, made dinner, kept kosher. We did not stick out.
“In my mind we weren’t rich. I recall my mom telling me things were too expensive, to not be wasteful, to not take things for granted. We had curfews. We had rules. I would say we were somewhat sheltered.”
Says Marla Lerner Tanenbaum, the baby of the brood, “Money was a nonissue.”
The family took occasional vacations to Puerto Rico. The kids went to a summer camp in Maine called Wohelo, for Work, Health, and Love. Except for Marla’s high-school years at Maret, they went to public schools.
Why not a more lavish life?
“It’s not me,” Ted Lerner says. “My wife and I decided it wasn’t necessary.”
Annette Lerner felt it wasn’t necessary to take part in the business after the early days. Ted says she staked him $250 to start his company; she answered the phones in their first office, their babies by her side.
Now she’s an artist and art collector. She spends much of her time in Palm Springs. Is she a Nationals fan? Lerner smiles: “She’s becoming a major fan.”
The Lerners are one of the brand-name Washington real-estate dynasties, but among the largest family empires, they are the only one to stay whole and in private hands.
Oliver Carr was able to hand his holdings to the next generation, but the company was then sold to a real-estate investment trust. Charles E. Smith’s real-estate empire followed a similar path, from the second generation to an investment trust.
Why do the Lerners appear to be in position to keep their holdings together under family control? One reason is that Ted Lerner created a framework as far back as 1965 with the goal of maintaining the various developments in one company and passing it on to future generations. Succession was put in motion even before Mark Lerner came into the company in the late 1970s.
Says the ever-laconic father: “I was intent on building an organization. I brought my son in, then my sons-in-law. We grew. Things got better. I was able to cut back.”
Says Mark Lerner: “My father handed over the company and said, ‘Go. Do it.’ He never looked back from that day. He never asked why I did something in a critical manner.”
Mark Lerner, 53, describes himself as a hard-working student, “but I don’t know if I was a great student.” He and his buddies went down to Candy Cane City, a ball field in Rock Creek Park, to play sandlot baseball and football. “There was never a time my father wasn’t available to me,” he says. He graduated from Bethesda–Chevy Chase High and George Washington and joined the family business. He started developing land and building properties, which remains his primary role.
“I had to work much harder,” he says. “I had the son-of-the-boss tag. I wanted to earn my reputation in my own right. He was the best teacher you could ever have. ‘Do it first-class.’ He preached it to me.”
In a joining of real-estate dynasties, Lerner’s son married Judy Lenkin, daughter of developer Mel Lenkin. They have three grown children and live in Georgetown.
Ed Cohen, 61, had the son-in-law-of-the-boss tag. He met Ted Lerner’s middle child, Debra, while practicing law. She had gone to Syracuse University, then graduated from American University and took classes in journalism at the University of Maryland. She was working in advertising when she met Ed Cohen, then switched to real estate as a broker. They have raised three children in DC; they now live in Spring Valley.
A native of New Haven, Connecticut, Cohen graduated from the University of Pennsylvania before getting his law degree at Georgetown. He joined the family business in 1984 and has developed a reputation as a business brain; he writes and negotiates many of the contracts and deals.
Bob Tanenbaum, 50, says his specialty is “debt and equity.” The son of a lawyer and a social worker, he grew up in Rochester, New York. His older brother is a lawyer in New York. He graduated from Union College and went to George Washington University Law School, where he fell in love with fellow student Marla Lerner. They are raising their children on a five-acre estate in Bethesda.
In both business and baseball, the four men work as a team supported by professionals who have been with the company for years: Art Fuccillo, director of development, and Alan Gottlieb, chief operating officer, have worked for the company for more than two decades.
“Each of us, no matter what is going on, is involved in everything,” says Ed Cohen. If they aren’t working in the same office, they talk by phone several times a day.
Says Mark: “In business, our decisions are unanimous or not at all.”
One of their most crucial decisions was one they kept secret from all but a few investors. In the 1980s, when there was a run-up in Washington real-estate values, Ted Lerner said it was time to diversify.
“Diversify we did,” says Ed Cohen. They branched out into the private-equity market of mergers and acquisitions. With other investors, they helped bring Continental Airlines out of bankruptcy. That and other investments helped the company weather the real-estate downturn of the late 1980s. They now have an organization that employs some 600 people. The company remains active in the private-equity market.
Everyone agrees that Ted Lerner, while he may no longer sit at the table to cut every deal, remains atop the organization and the family.
“He works harder now than ever,” says Mark. “He will work until the day he dies.”
Which brings up the matter of succession. “Bob, Ed, and I will make decisions as we do now,” says Mark. “It will be three people rather than four at the top. And my sisters will always be involved in big issues. There will be no changes.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that succession will be seamless.”
Succession also has been settled when it comes to the Washington Nationals. When Ted Lerner gives up the title, Mark Lerner will become managing principal owner.
The family that works together plays together.
“We all have a desire to make it work,” says Mark Lerner. “I love my sisters dearly. That’s important to them. It’s important to me.”
In a society that almost seems to celebrate dysfunctional families, especially those of wealth and privilege, the Lerners are fully functional.
“It’s not that we’re all that easy to get along with,” says Marla Tanenbaum. “We really work at it.”
How have they made it work? “Kent Island,” they all say.
Bill and Lillian Morris, Annette Lerner’s parents, bought a mile of coastal property on Kent Island across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in the 1940s for $300. Bill Morris was an engineer, a developer, and an inventor with 20 patents to his name, but his true love was flying airplanes. He built an airstrip on Kent Island as well as a marina.
“I painted the first stripe down the runway,” says Mark Lerner.
When he died in December 2005 at 98, Morris was one of the nation’s oldest active pilots.
His grandkids called him “Pop-Pop Airplane.”
In the mid-1980s, the Lerner children bought 2½ acres on Kent Island so they could build a home where they and the grandchildren could gather. They planned it together, started building in 1985, and finished it in 1987.
“Deciding to do that was not just a whim,” says Ed Cohen.
“The kids all grew up there together in the summer,” says Mark Lerner. “We would push business aside for the weekend and enjoy the family. It is a huge part of why the whole family has been successful at keeping great relationships.
“Luck has a lot to do with it, but you have to want it,” he says.
Says Debra Cohen: “Everyone makes an effort to get along. If there’s a problem, we talk about it.”
“We have to get along. We have a family business,” says Marla Tanenbaum, 50. “I compare it to living together as opposed to being married. If you’re living together, you can walk out the door. If you’re married, you have to work on it.”
The Lerners have family meetings every month at which they talk about all business matters and any family issues.
“We are what we are,” says Mark. “It’s not a façade. We love one another.”
One family rupture: Ted invited his younger brother, Lawrence, into the family business, but the relationship broke up in 1983 in a welter of lawsuits and acrimony. The two families don’t speak.
Marla brings up her uncle and says, “We know what can happen.”
In 1973 the Lerners took their children to Israel to meet members of Ted’s family still living there.
“It made a huge impression on me,” says Marla. “I wanted to go back.”
She spent her junior year of college at Hebrew University there. After graduating from Tulane, she got a law degree at George Washington, where she met her future husband. She practiced law for a few years, but when their first child, Eden, was born in 1986, she took over the family foundation.
The Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Foundation gives away $2 million to $4 million a year, according to Marla Tanenbaum. “Everything gets funneled through me,” she says. “Small and large requests. I read everything that comes in. I try to be disciplined. I try to establish goals and get everyone to agree.”
Some of their giving has gone to organizations in Israel. The foundation donated $8.5 million to build a sports complex at Hebrew University. Local Jewish organizations have benefited. Rockville’s Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy cafeteria, named for Lerner’s mother, Ethel, was in bad shape. The Lerners paid to renovate it. Their synagogue, Ohr Kodesh, needed a new school. The Lerners built it.
The family has given millions to George Washington University. Its name is on a law-school building and a wellness center. It has financed a cancer-research center at Johns Hopkins University.
Imagination Stage in Bethesda has received a $1-million gift. “My kids went there,” Tanenbaum says. “They have a great staff, great energy.”
The Lerner Foundation has a long-term relationship with Food & Friends, a DC-based organization that helps people with HIV/AIDS and cancer.
“Now we’re on everyone’s radar,” Marla says. “It’s been wild.”
ted lerner had been trying to buy a baseball team for 27 years, starting in 1979, when he heard the Baltimore Orioles were for sale.
He called Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger and asked to meet him at his offices at the National Brewing Company. “What’s the price?” Lerner asked.
Hoffberger said $12.5 million.
“I’ll pay it,” Lerner replied.
Instead, Hoffberger sold the team to well-connected DC lawyer Edward Bennett Williams.
I ask Lerner if he had dreamed of owning a team as a kid. He laughs: “Not on my radar.” But baseball was in his blood.
“In Washington in the 1930s, that’s all there was—baseball,” he says. At Griffith Stadium he went to Senators games and saw Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Ted Williams hit home runs.
“I was an usher at the all-star game when Dizzy Dean was hit on the foot by a line drive,” he says. “He was never the same after that.”
Lerner schooled son Mark in baseball. They often went to opening-day games in Baltimore. Says Mark: “We always looked at franchises and wondered what we could do if we owned a team.”
They made a pass at the San Diego Padres. They made a run at the Redskins when Dan Snyder bought the team. Mark Lerner was determined to learn the business side of sports. He joined the group headed by Ted Leonsis that owns the Washington Capitals hockey team.
Mark visited and studied baseball parks around the country. Says Ed Cohen: “Baseball parks have been Mark’s avocation for years.”
Stan Kasten retired from running the Atlanta Braves in 2003. He had managed Ted Turner’s sports franchises for 25 years, starting in 1976, fresh out of law school, for $200 a week. He put the word out that he might entertain another venture.
Ted Lerner called him in January 2004 and asked to meet. They had never spoken. Kasten flew to Washington and chatted with Lerner in the Washington Square offices. “I’d heard he was in his late seventies,” Kasten says. “I didn’t know I’d meet someone with the energy of someone in his thirties.”
They took an immediate liking to each other. Both were observant Jews. Both were at the top of their game and wanted to be in the sports business. They talked for an hour about teams that might be in play. “We agreed to stay in touch,” Kasten says.
At that moment, the District was competing with Virginia to become the future home of the Montreal Expos. Potential owners were circling.
In early 2005 Kasten called Lerner to say he was coming to Washington and asked if they might talk. By that time DC had won the competition for the Expos. Kasten had joined a group of investors interested in buying the team. Other groups were forming. Lerner said he was considering bidding for the team. They didn’t talk about joining forces.
A few months earlier, the eight members of the Lerner family had met in their parents’ Chevy Chase home to discuss Mark and Ted’s desire to make a run at the team. Some were for it, some had concerns, especially about how the family would be forced into the public arena.
“We had avoided that as much as possible,” Lerner says, “except for some attention when we made charitable contributions.”
They discussed it and agreed to try for the team. “If we were going to do it,” Mark says, “we would do it together. It had to be unanimous.”
Ted Lerner had a hunch: “If we were successful, hopefully we would get Kasten to be president, and he would be a good representative for the family.”
Eight groups formed to try to buy the team that had been renamed the Washington Nationals. Seven were committees of unrelated people who had wealth and political connections; the Lerners were the only family to apply.
The politicking was intense. Groups sought advantage by lobbying the 29 major-league owners, by currying favor with the press, by getting DC officials in their camp, by trying to bring pressure on commissioner Bud Selig, who would make the decision.
The Lerners declined to join the fray. They made an official bid. And waited.
“There was an immense amount of lobbying going on among other groups,” Lerner says. “My instruction to the family was to remain quiet, calm, and avoid all controversy about baseball. Fortunately, we have a family that doesn’t have large egos.”
Selig summoned the Lerners to his offices in Milwaukee in early October 2005. Ted, Mark, Ed, and Bob chartered two planes. “We don’t like it when even two family members fly on the same plane,” Lerner says. “God forbid, if something occurred, someone has to take care of the family and continue the business operations.”
The four men met with Selig for about 90 minutes in his office overlooking Lake Michigan. They talked about family and Washington and their concept of running the team. Lerner said Selig asked who would be president.
“Hopefully,” he said, “Stan Kasten.”
The Lerners left the meeting in good spirits. They had another audience in Palm Springs with major-league head Robert DuPuy. It would be eight months, in May 2006, before Selig would call to say they’d be the new owners. It turns out he had made his decision when they met him in Milwaukee.
It didn’t hurt that Bowie Kuhn, Lerner’s classmate at Roosevelt High, had called Selig to put in a good word. It certainly helped when Stan Kasten realized his group lacked Washington connections and asked to join the Lerner bid in early 2006.
Did Selig broker the marriage between Kasten and the Lerners?
Says Kasten: “Never true.”
When Bud Selig finally phoned Ted Lerner on May 3 to make the deal official, Lerner reacted in character. “There was no great elation,” he says. “It was time to move on.”
Eleven months later, on a cool Monday morning in March of this year, Debra Cohen walks dangerously close to a cascade of sparks falling from a steel beam being welded by a workman at the ballpark under construction in Southeast DC. She’s wearing a hardhat, low heels, Chanel shades.
“It’s fun to come down here,” she says. “And it helps me develop our message.”
Cohen is the family’s point person on marketing. “The timing was perfect for me,” she says. “My kids are grown, and I can offer something from my background.”
A Nationals official escorts us away from the falling sparks. Reporters gather to watch DC officials show off the stadium, which they say will open on time and on budget for opening day next season.
The following Saturday, Marla Tanenbaum holds a press conference in the bowels of RFK Stadium where she unveils the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation’s first major gift—a $2-million contribution to create a pediatric diabetes-care facility at Children’s National Medical Center. The foundation, which she heads, is also developing a youth baseball academy with a $1-million donation.
“The whole family agreed to buy the team,” she says. “Now it’s all hands on deck.”
The deck was a bit shaky at first. District officials recall Ted Lerner’s reaction when he tried to deal with the city last spring and summer. Then-mayor Anthony Williams was largely absent and barely interested. His lieutenants seemed disorganized. “Who’s your Eisenhower?” the senior Lerner would ask.
Within District political circles, the Lerners were virtual strangers. They are not political people. They don’t hobnob with politicians or join business organizations such as the Federal City Council. They are not players on the DC scene.
The family had to start from scratch in working with the DC Council, whose members had preferred other potential ownership groups. Two members, Marion Barry and Vincent Orange, had come out publicly against the Lerners, claiming they lacked DC connections.
Ted Lerner couldn’t find an Eisenhower in the DC government because none existed. DC leaders looked more like tin soldiers scuffling over the team and the stadium. It took them months to agree on a stadium deal under which the city would finance the construction, capped at $611 million. The entity actually developing the stadium was the Sports and Entertainment Commission. At the time its chair was lawyer Mark Tuohey.
The Lerners, in their reversed roles as renters, came in lobbying hard to improve aspects of the stadium. “You can do it on your nickel,” Tuohey says he told them.
The Lerners, usually represented by Ed Cohen and Bob Tanenbaum, asked to split costs.
“There’s no debate,” Tuohey said. “If you want to put bathrooms in the suites, you have to pay for it yourselves. We have to stick to our cap of $611 million.”
Says Ed Cohen: “We and the District are not against each other. We are partners. We’re not being selfish; they’re not being selfish. It should work out fine.”
During negotiations, the Lerners often went head to head with Allen Lew, chief executive officer for the Sports and Entertainment Commission. An experienced developer from New York, he had been in charge of developing DC’s new convention center.
“I like Ted the most,” Lew tells me. We’re sitting in the concrete pad that will become the new stadium’s upper deck. “He’s the salt of the earth. No BS. You never have to wonder what he’s thinking. I’m not sure Ted realized how complicated the politics were going to be.”
Says Jack Evans: “Allen Lew drives as hard a bargain as the Lerners. Things are going well.”
The bargaining became easier once DC agreed to build an above-ground parking garage for fans. It also became easier when Ted Lerner found his Eisenhower in the person of Mayor Adrian Fenty, who took office in January. As a councilmember he had been an opponent of public funding for the stadium; once the deal was signed and he became mayor, Fenty took charge and put DC agencies in partnership with the Lerners.
“Ted is a straight shooter,” he says. “I have developed a great working relationship with all of them. They are giving back to the community. I don’t think people give them credit for the amount of money they have put into the stadium—or the unbelievable amount of time they are spending on this project.”
Ed Cohen has just come from a board meeting of the Nationals, which means he has sat with his father-in-law and brothers-in-law and team officials like Stan Kasten. They settled on ticket prices in the new stadium. More than 3,000 seats will be $5 and $10.
“We knew it would be a lot of work when we started,” Cohen says. “We may have underestimated it.”
The Lerners have focused on what they see as the new stadium’s biggest potential problem: access to the ballpark and parking. Some streets have to be widened and marked. The Metro station has to be expanded. Thousands of fans have to be convinced to take public transportation.
“I spend all my time on baseball,” Cohen says. “Then I spend the rest of my time on everything else I should be doing.”
Mark Lerner, clearly the fan of the family, talks more about the Nationals’ farm system than the stadium’s parking. He says the team they bought had been starved during the years it was owned by Major League Baseball, whose owners raided its best players.
“We were left with an organization that had very little talent in its minor leagues at best,” he says. “We had to build an organization from the bottom up. It will not be a one-year wonder.”
How long before the fans have a winning team?
“I don’t have a clue,” he says. “Our scouting system was 30th in the league; now we are fully staffed. We are looking all over the world for talent—the Caribbean, the Pacific Rim, the states. Whatever it takes.”
His model is the Detroit Tigers. “They had 119 losses three years ago; last year they went to the World Series,” he says. “They replenished their farm system, drafted right, then went to free agents. That’s what will happen to us.”
But it won’t happen unless the team makes money or the Lerners are willing to invest their own cash. Already, the Lerners have shelled out $20 million that Major League Baseball agreed the new owners would contribute to the new stadium—on top of the $450-million price tag. They have spent as much as $10 million on other stadium improvements, like the scoreboard and bathrooms. But they have spent very little on players. Teams can spend tens of millions of dollars to attract stars in the free-agent market.
Will the Lerners, who are not known as free spenders, be willing to pay top dollar?
Says Ed Cohen: “We are committed to taking no money out of the team for ten years. We are prepared to see it through—we are putting in money now.”
Forbes magazine in April calculated the Nationals franchise value at $447 million. The Lerners have invested approximately $480 million. Forbes put the New York Yankees’ value at $1.2 billion.
“We would not have bought the team if we didn’t think it would turn out well,” Cohen says.
Whatever happens will take place in Washington.
Says Mark Lerner, “There is never any chance this team will be packaged up and moved out for any reason.”
Back in the owner’s box, Ted Lerner has come to grips with the fact that Nationals closer Chad Cordero couldn’t get the job done against the Phillies. The teams have gone scoreless for another inning. It’s 10 pm in the tenth inning.
Marla Tanenbaum chucks a peanut at her brother Mark. It misses. She throws another. He eats it.
She expects to find peanut shells in her pocketbook when she goes home, compliments of her older brother. It’s part of their routine—family love.
Grant Tanenbaum shows up with some friends. Marla’s 14-year-old son taps Ted Lerner on the shoulder.
“Hi, Pop Pop,” he says and throws his arms around him.
Mark’s son, Jake, passes through the box. He’s a freshman at George Washington. “This is every little kid’s dream,” he says. “I was born lucky enough to have it be more than a fantasy.” He heads back down to the family’s seats behind the Nationals dugout on the third-base side.
Ted Lerner paces.
The teams are scoreless through the 12th inning. Lerner puts on his overcoat and decides to call it a night.
Behind the wheel on the drive home, he says: “I wouldn’t bet on the Nats tonight.”
It’s a good thing he isn’t a gambling man. The Nats beat the Phillies in the bottom of the 13th.