- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

Mark Lerner went to Ted Leonsis in 2003 and basically asked whether he could pay a lot of money to serve an apprenticeship in sports ownership.

“He asked to make a small investment to get a seat at the table to learn from the inside about sports ownership,” said Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals.

Lerner joined Lincoln Holdings in November of that year and began taking notes on the challenges that come with owning a franchise. Leonsis said Lerner soaked in as much as he could.

“For a small, minority owner, he has been very active,” Leonsis said. “He attends lots and lots of games. He is always online, sending me info. He is very inquisitive.”

Yesterday the apprenticeship ended. A group that includes Lerner, his father, Ted, other family members and investors yesterday was named the owner of the Washington Nationals.

The Lerners hope to own the Nationals a long time — a goal that likely helped them win the competition with the seven other investment groups willing to pay $450 million for the relocated Montreal Expos franchise.

“He is not a financial buyer,” said Leonsis, who first met the Lerners through charity work. “The family wants the team to be a generational team. They do not look at assets as investments but as part of the family.

“This will be a family affair with lots of love and care and feeding and attention to detail. The best thing is that the Lerners and Mark will treat the team as a public trust. They will take a long-term view of the team and its improvement and will always conduct themselves with dignity and grace.”

That won over baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig: The Lerners convinced him the Nationals will be a labor of love, not a diversion for the rich and powerful or an investment to be cashed in five years from now.

They did such a good job that Cadillac Bud rejected the intense lobbying of one of his closest confidants, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, on behalf of his friend Jeff Smulyan, the Indianapolis media mogul and former owner of the Seattle Mariners.

That is a stunning departure from baseball’s business as usual. The people who run baseball typically pick their friends. A widely held theory, dating back to the 1994 baseball strike, is that Cadillac Bud does what Reinsdorf wants him to do. Not this time.

A baseball insider who knows Cadillac Bud well said several weeks ago, “Bud is very comfortable with the Lerners.”

That, in the end, was more important to Selig than the Capitol Hill influence that the Washington Baseball Club, led by financier and political figure Fred Malek, would have brought to baseball.

Surprisingly, it also was more important than the substantial minority representation of Smulyan’s group of District investors. That’s surprising because Cadillac Bud wanted minority ownership to be part of his legacy with the Nationals.

Smulyan’s group, which included former deputy attorney general Eric Holder and Radio One chief executive Alfred Liggins III, offered the strongest minority presence among the three favorites.

But if there was ever a creature of comfort, it is Cadillac Bud. This is a man who for the past 29 years has had a hot dog and a soda at Gilles Frozen Custard stand in Milwaukee for lunch nearly every day. He places value on comfort. And for him, the Lerners are an ownership version of a hot dog and a soda at Gilles.

This sale to the Lerners closes one of the most bizarre chapters in modern professional sports history. Baseball’s 29 owners paid $120 million to buy the Expos from Jeffrey Loria, who in turn paid $158 million for the Florida Marlins, which allowed Marlins owner John Henry to lead a group that bought the Red Sox for $700 million.

It was a questionable but historic deal. The Marlins went on to win the World Series in 2003, and the Red Sox, of course, did the same in 2004.

And the Expos?

Baseball has been operating the Expos/Nationals not as a baseball franchise but as a halfway house for the disenfranchised and unemployed. That now ends with the sale to the Lerners.

Maybe, just maybe, the Nationals someday in the not-too-distant future will make it a World Series trifecta for the members of that bizarre three-way franchise swap.

They have a long way to go. It will require patience and determination. Leonsis said Mark Lerner has both.

“Mark is very driven by winning,” Leonsis said. “He is very driven by doing the right things the right way.”

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