- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006

It’s 4 p.m., and Mark Lerner probably already has walked about 10 miles in and around various parts of RFK Stadium, and he is still hustling around, trying to get to a meeting with the Nationals players in their refurbished clubhouse.

He is supposed to be meeting them as one of the new owners, but technically, because the deal to purchase the team from Major League Baseball has not yet officially closed, all he is right now is a fan who happened to buy new televisions and carpet for the players. A few hours later, all the papers will have been signed for the deal to become official, but because the banks were closed, the wire transfer of the funds (what, they don’t carry $450 million around in cash?) could not take place until the banks open Monday.

But Mark Lerner was a very dedicated fan, mind you, who, did not let the hangup on the official purchase and ownership of the Washington Nationals diminish the joy of the day for his family.

“I remember talking about this with Dad when I was 12 years old,” Mark Lerner said. “We used to dream about how great it would be to own a sports franchise and what we would do to run it.”

That’s not a particularly unusual dream for a baseball fan. I would venture to say most fans who walked through the gates at RFK last night for the “grand reopening” of the ballpark have that same dream.

But most don’t come within a sniff of sponsoring their local bar’s softball team, let alone owning a professional sports franchise. The Lerners have had their sights set on this for nearly 30 years, from the time they flirted with buying the Baltimore Orioles in the late 1970s to trying to relocate the San Francisco Giants to Washington to bidding on the Redskins.

And now here it was, finally, papers or no papers. It was the Lerner name that was on the banner greeting fans at RFK as they arrived before the game against the Chicago Cubs. There was no doubt who owns this team. And if fans didn’t realize it before they arrived at the ballpark, they probably found out after they bumped into a Lerner family member, friend or business partner as they came through the gates because they were all over the place, in red Nationals shirts, greeting fans and handing out hats.

And if a Lerner family member wasn’t visible, they were likely working somewhere to make sure all the bells and whistles that they put in place were playing on cue. The “Lerner family” reference on the banner hanging outside the ballpark is not for show.

Besides Ted and Mark Lerner, their son-in-laws, Ed Cohen and Bob Tanenbaum, and their wives and Lerner daughters, Debra Cohen and Marla Tanenbaum, were all involved in preparation for this night and for the future of this franchise, as well as the other partners.

Mark Lerner’s wife, Judy, gave out hats and greeted fans, as well as their sons, Jonathan and Jacob, and their daughter, Lauren.

“This is a family affair,” Mark Lerner said. “Everyone in the family has worked very hard for this moment.”

Mark Lerner then turned to the fans who were streaming into the gate and said, “Welcome, welcome, here’s a hat.”

One of the goals the Lerner ownership group was trying to accomplish by this “grand reopening” was a show of faith to fans that owners who care about this franchise and its followers are finally in place, then it was a rousing success. Fans took part in the “Fan Festival” on the Stadium Armory Mall in front of the ballpark. Then, when they walked into the stadium, they were greeted not just by owners, but players and everyone seemingly connected with the franchise.

Frank Robinson greeted fans. Sportscaster James Brown, one of the minority investors, greeted fans. And some fans asked Ted Lerner, also wearing his red Nationals shirt, for his autograph.

“Where’s your hat?” Ted Lerner asked me. “We’ve got to get you a hat.”

Later, Ted Lerner took me over by the stands and pointed out how clean the aisles were. “Look at that, look how clean that is,” he said, proudly, and he was right. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the ballpark as clean as it was for yesterday’s game.

Now fans aren’t paying money to see clean aisles, but the Lerners want people to take it as a sign of things to come for this organization. “Look at what we can do in 10 days,” Ted Lerner said, referring to the time between homestands that the soon-to-be-owners had to put some makeup on the 45-year-old structure. “We are going to keep working hard on improving everything we can. We want people to have faith that we are building a foundation here for something that will last.”

The first building block of that is the fan experience, and Mark Lerner, along with partner and team president Stan Kasten, made sure everyone who would greet fans and show them to their seats last night got that message. “You are the faces of the franchise,” Mark Lerner said. “You are the ones that people come into contact with, and anything you can do that is a positive experience will help bring them back.”

This is a different experience for the Lerners. No one asks for their autograph for owning a shopping mall. They don’t have to worry about bringing shoppers back based on the hope of better times. The product in the mall — the stores — ultimately draws people.

They don’t have that luxury here because the product on the field is more Wal-Mart than Tyson’s Corner. So they have to sell something else, and it is effort — making the effort every way they can.

“We hope we can get the public to understand that we are trying to do the right thing, and we hope they will support us,” Mark Lerner said.

The right thing is such a novel concept in a town that has been wronged by baseball since 1971 that it just may be enough to warrant some faith and support.

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