It began with genuine optimism. The Washington Nationals entered the 2008 season with a new ballpark, a new crop of young talent and a feeling that this once-downtrodden franchise was moving swiftly on a rebuilding path.
But as the season enters its final week, that sense of optimism is a distant memory. Fan interest is at astonishingly low levels as the team is poised to break the 100-loss mark. Free agent signings turned into busts. The top draft pick failed to sign. And there is a growing level of frustration with the team’s ownership, stretching from the front office to the clubhouse.
On the field, the Nationals have languished at or near the bottom of the major league standings since April. Serious injuries to key players like Chad Cordero, Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman and Dmitri Young helped contribute to the poor record - 58-98 with six games to play - but several others who were counted on to make the team competitive struggled through the worst seasons of their respective careers.
Even the best-run teams, however, can face injuries and fall short of expectations on the field. In the case of the Nationals, the problems appear to run far deeper, as the once-vaunted “Plan” hailed by team president Stan Kasten has been taken over by team owner Ted Lerner and his family, who wield an unusual level of day-to-day control over every team decision ranging from scouting to marketing.
“Clearly, every decision of any significance is made ultimately by Ted,” a city official familiar with the Lerners’ baseball operation said. “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.”
‘People are just miserable’
Inside the team offices at Nationals Park, morale is at an all-time low. The team’s poor play has put a damper on enthusiasm, but team employees said the on-field issues aren’t the main problem. Workers describe a challenging, often tedious environment in which every decision and every dollar spent is scrutinized by Ted Lerner; his son, Mark; or sons-in-law, Ed Cohen and Bob Tanenbaum.
Lengthy purchase orders are needed for basic office supplies, for instance, and the use of courier services is discouraged. Pay raises and expense reimbursements are delayed for months. Employees of the Nationals and Major League Baseball alike were astonished when the club did not send anyone to either the sport’s scouting school or industry meetings - events attended by every other franchise.
“Every decision they make is about money,” one former member of the organization said. “You just can’t run a ballclub like that.”
What’s more, employees are embarrassed by what they see as a series of public relations gaffes by the team, including the refusal to pay $3.5 million in rent on Nationals Park on the grounds that the ballpark was not “substantially complete” by Opening Day. Others expressed disappointment in the team’s decision to hold its annual charity gala in Prince George’s County instead of the District.
In the past month, the Nationals have witnessed the exodus of Tom Ward, the team’s vice president of marketing, and Mike Shapiro, the club’s vice president of business affairs. While the precise reasons for their departures remain unknown, sources close to the team said they are a bellwether for a larger employee exodus.
“People are just miserable,” said an industry source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he does business with the team. “There’s going to be a lot of people following them.”
Or as one disgruntled team employee put it: “Everyone wants out, and it’s entirely because of the Lerners.”
In addition to discontent among the Nationals’ rank-and-file employees, there is tension at the very top. Sources both inside and outside the organization said Kasten has not been provided the level of organizational control he desires or was promised when he joined the Lerner family’s bid for the team.
“Stan hasn’t been able to do the things he wants to do,” a source close to the team said. “They’re not letting him do the things he was brought here to do.”