As the 2006 season and the second year of baseball's return to the District comes to a close this weekend at RFK Stadium, Washington Nationals owner Mark Lerner answered some questions from columnist Thom Loverro of The Washington Times about his experiences since taking over the team in July and what fans might expect in the future:
Q: After the initial takeover and the big reopening weekend, was there any emotional letdown for you?
A: Are you kidding? No. This is an opportunity my dad (Theodore Lerner) has dreamed of since he was a little boy. It's a dream that has always been with my sisters (Marla Tanenbaum, Debra Cohen) and me as long as I can remember. I can't imagine ever having an emotional letdown from owning the hometown major league baseball club — the national pastime team — in the nation's capital. No. There has been absolutely no emotional letdown. Besides, we still have a lot to do to make this franchise what we want it to be for the fans of the Washington, D.C., region.
Q: After nearly three months of ownership, has there been anything that has surprised you that you may not have been prepared for?
A: Only that there is so much to be done and, it seems, so little time to do it. There are quite a lot of moving parts to bringing the Nationals to where we want them — on the field and off. My dad, my brothers-in-law (Ed Cohen and Bob Tanenbaum), Stan Kasten (president and partner) and all our partners and staff find there are never enough hours in the day to do what we'd like.
Q: What has been the most satisfying parts of ownership so far in this short time? What have been the most frustrating?
A: It's hard for us to imagine being really satisfied until the team is more competitive on the field and until we are in the new ballpark and can offer the fan experience we've always imagined. The most satisfying part of ownership is meeting the fans and seeing how enthusiastic they are about the possibilities for this team. The hardest part is being patient while we try to get it where we and the fans want it.
Q: Will there be any more changes in service or other issues at RFK Stadium for the final season?
A: Absolutely. There's hardly a day that goes by when the organization — or a fan — doesn't come up with a really good idea for making the ballpark experience better at RFK. We're all looking forward to the opportunity to make some adjustments to the stadium in anticipation of this ownership's first full season at RFK.
Q: Will there be any ticket deals offered next season that are tied to fans getting first crack at seats in the new ballpark?
A: We are certainly working on a number of such ticket options but aren't quite ready to make any kind of announcement at this time.
Q: Who will be representing the team at the owners meetings for baseball? Will it be a combination of people from your ownership group or just one representative?
A: Certainly my dad will be at as many owners meetings as possible. There will be different combinations that accompany him, based on subject matters that need to be discussed.
Q: How concerned are you about, in just your first few months of ownership, going into an offseason when a new labor contract will have to be negotiated?
A: Every indication we're getting now is that ongoing negotiations have been going well. I know that everyone — owners, players, sponsors, advertisers and media partners — shares a hope that a CBA will be reached quickly and amicably. We're all quite optimistic. I think we all learned from the last agreement — which was reached without work stoppage or even a threat of work stoppage — was beneficial to the game and certainly appreciated by the fans.
Q: Can fans expect enough spending on the team on the field next year to make it more competitive while at the same time rebuilding the minor league system? Any ideas on what the ballpark payroll numbers will be for 2008?
A: I know Stan Kasten and his baseball staff are working on next season's roster now. I can't answer your question specifically but can tell you we all share the same philosophy for building a perennial winner by building from within the minor league system.
Q: Will Jim Bowden be the general manager to rebuild the minor league system and put together next year's roster? It has never been made clear how long term his current contract is.
A: You're asking me a question that would be better directed to Stan Kasten. Stan's record with the Braves (14 division championships, five National League pennants, and a World Series championship) certainly suggests he knows how to build a championship caliber organization, and we all have faith he can, in time, replicate that record with the Nationals.
Q: Will Frank Robinson return as manager? If not, will he be offered a meaningful job in the organization? If the decision has been made not to bring him back as manager, why not have a Frank Robinson farewell at RFK Stadium?
A: One of the great things about sports is that everyone has an opinion about how to run a franchise or manage a team on the field. We appreciate that all fans — me included — do that every game, every season. However, Stan's opinion on this issue probably should carry more weight than mine. He knows where he wants the team to be from year to year and how best to get there. I don't want to presume to do his job.
Obviously, Frank Robinson has meant a lot to this franchise and a lot to baseball. He's a legitimate hero for his performances on the field, then as a barrier-breaking manager and certainly as an ambassador for the game. Regardless when Frank ends his managing career with the Nationals, he will always be a special person in the history of the franchise, a special person with Nationals fans, a special person with this ownership and will most certainly be honored in some special way. It would be premature to say now exactly how and what that honor might be.