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Thom Loverro: Nats franchise is no jewel

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On the Lerner Enterprises Web site, the entry regarding its 2006 acquisition of the Washington Nationals quotes owner Ted Lerner discussing his commitment to the franchise.

"I plan on doing everything I can do to make sure this franchise becomes an international jewel for Major League Baseball, the nation, D.C. and its wonderful fans," Ted Lerner said.

Oh, it's a jewel all right. But as Johnny Depp said to Al Pacino in the film "Donnie Brasco" - it's a fugazy.

In other words, a fake, a phony.

More than two years after the Lerners took ownership of the team, the Washington Nationals don't even qualify as cubic zirconia.

By nearly any measurement possible, this baseball season has been a train wreck. The major league club is on pace to lose more than 100 games - the worst record for any team opening a new ballpark since Camden Yards opened in Baltimore in 1992. The attendance will finish at 2.4 million - the second lowest of any team opening a new ballpark in the Camden Yards era.

No one is watching. No one is listening. People are leaving.

It is taking its toll.

Remember when baseball commissioner Bud Selig talked about the "family" model that made the Lerners such attractive owners when they were awarded the team in May 2006?

You can almost define the divisions within the organization between the Lerner family and everyone who is not a Lerner.

Key people on the business administration side are leaving, and the talk is that team president Stan Kasten - the key baseball man who joined the Lerner ownership group in the final stretch run for the bid - clearly has not been taken in as a member of the "family" when it comes to making decisions.

Disgruntled employees are looking for a way out as well. Morale within the organization - which should be high given the new ballpark - is alarmingly low.

"People are just miserable," an industry source told The Washington Times on a condition of anonymity because he does business with the team. "There's going to be a lot of people following them."

And the fans soon could follow. It is difficult to imagine the team maintaining its season-ticket base at this year's level after such a pathetic campaign and the public relations fallout the team has taken from, among other things, refusing to pay its rent to the city in a contract dispute.

"I've been spending more than $30,000 a year now for season seats and parking since the team moved into town that I literally cannot give away to friends, clients and associates," one Washington businessman and season-ticket holder said.

It is obvious the Lerners operate in a bunker of conviction that has served them well in their businesses. But these beliefs are setting back this business of baseball, which relies on public trust and confidence.

What is particularly disturbing is that it is also obvious that Ted Lerner unfortunately has the courage of these convictions - meaning no one is going to tell him how to run a business, whether it is a mall or a baseball team.

A city official who is familiar with the Lerner baseball operation said he believes all the shots within the Washington Nationals are called by Ted Lerner.

"Clearly, every decision of any significance is made ultimately by Ted," the official told The Washington Times. "The decision making and the whole approach starts at the top and remains at the top. And I don't think anything is going to change significantly as long as Ted is running the team."

If that is the case, then the Nationals need an intervention.

The obvious person to do that is Selig. But he says there is no need. Everything is fine.

"If I was picking an owner again today in the retrospect of history, I would pick Ted Lerner again," Selig said. "I have a lot of faith in Ted. I have a lot of faith in the family. I like Ted a lot. I have a lot of respect for him. On balance, given the time they have owned the franchise, I would pick them today. I feel very strongly about it."

As far as talking to the Lerner family about the operation of the team, Selig said, "I talk to Ted quite frequently as I do all owners, and I will continue to do that."

He pointed out one concern - the poor television and radio ratings.

"We are looking at that ourselves," Selig said. "I am surprised at that. We need to clearly get the radio and television ratings up. It doesn't make any sense. We are checking that and trying to find out what we can do.

"But do I have any less confidence in Washington or the Lerners than I did before? No."

Of course not. What else can he say? This was his choice, his legacy.

That confidence is hardly widespread through baseball, though. The franchise has been the source of jokes and bewilderment.

It is one thing to run a Wal-Mart team in places like Kansas City and Pittsburgh. But this is Washington, the nation's capital. It is supposed to be one of the jewels of baseball, an international showcase for a sport that is battling in the international arena for money and presence.

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