- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

The new owners of the Washington Nationals have stated in no uncertain terms that they want to build themselves a model franchise, one that becomes the envy of every other team in baseball.

Now comes the bigger question: How do they plan to do it?

Rest assured, the Lerner family and new partner Stan Kasten already have mapped out a comprehensive game plan. There will be changes, big and small. There will be attention to detail, big and small.

And while some aspects will be implemented as soon as they take full control of the organization next month, others won’t be visible for perhaps several years.

This much is certain: Everyone within the organization, from principal owners Ted and Mark Lerner to club president Kasten to the general manager and manager, will be on the same page.

“We all have the same vision for how this should work,” Kasten said.

The Lerners technically may be the owners, but Kasten will be calling the shots. A highly successful executive with the Atlanta Braves, Hawks and Thrashers over the last two decades, he will be “totally in charge of day-to-day operations of the Nationals,” Mark Lerner said.

Kasten believes there are three ingredients to building a successful baseball franchise:

• Building a team through player development in a strong minor league system.

• Providing customers a positive and enjoyable experience at the ballpark.

• Immersing the franchise into every aspect of the community.

“I am persuaded that this ownership group is abundantly ready to make the commitment in all of those areas,” Kasten said. “Which is the very best news Nationals fans could have.”

The new owners will place an immediate emphasis on improving the gameday experience at RFK Stadium as best as they can given the circumstances. Lerner spoke of making sure the stadium is kept clean, with ushers and vendors who treat fans in a courteous manner.

That’s a quick fix. Building a winning ballclub figures to take more time.

Despite their surprising success last season, the Nationals are floundering on the field so far this year. That, according to sources both with the new ownership group as well as the current administration, can be attributed in many ways to the club’s substandard minor league system.

That is where Kasten comes in. He helped build a championship-caliber ballclub in Atlanta (winners of 14 straight division titles) not by paying exorbitant salaries to veteran free agents, but by building one of the sport’s most successful player development systems.

Nationals fans and media members want to know how much the Lerners and Kasten will bump up the club’s current $63 million payroll, but that number isn’t nearly as important to the new owners.

“I know it’s very easy to think in terms of payroll, as if that’s the only thing,” Kasten said. “But there’s so much more that goes into building this. What you need to be asking is: Are there going to be investments in the minor leagues and scouting? And the answer to those questions is, ‘Yes.’ That’s what you should be taking us to task for if that doesn’t happen.”

The new owners have their work cut out for them. During its previous incarnation in Montreal, the Nationals franchise had one of the game’s deepest farm systems. But it has been stripped down to the bare bones over the last four years, with few top prospects to speak of.

That becomes an even bigger problem when the major league roster is devoid of top talent as well. Though the Nationals have well-known players like Alfonso Soriano, Nick Johnson, Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen, one high-ranking official in the current administration said he believes the club has only one true “cornerstone” player with which to build a winner: rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

So it could take a while to build a truly successful team.

“It can be accomplished,” manager Frank Robinson said, “if you’re patient enough.”

For his part, Robinson is willing to take the long path to success. Even though the 70-year-old has been given no assurances that he’ll be retained by the new owners, he agrees with his new bosses’ slow-and-steady philosophy.

“That’s the same way I feel,” he said. “You need a strong minor league system. That is your lifeline to the major league baseball club. When you have the people in your system to fill spots at the major league level, you don’t have to go out on the free-agent market to try to fill four, five, six spots to have a competitive ballclub.”

General manager Jim Bowden, who has built a strong relationship with Lerner over the past year but also has been given no assurances that he’ll remain with the club, echoes those sentiments.

“From my conversations with the Lerner family as well as Stan Kasten, I believe that they are going to have the resources, the desire and the passion to do things right,” Bowden said.

The new owners can’t build a successful franchise solely on the playing field, though. They need to reach out to the public, and in this case, to local government officials who have played such a key role in bringing baseball to the District in the first place.

The Lerner family is expected to meet with city and sports commission officials in the coming weeks. The agendas of those meetings likely will include talks about improving the city’s strained relationship with baseball through community outreach. They will also address several off-the-field issues, including stadium concession and the design of a master plan for the area around the ballpark, which has fallen behind schedule.

Council member Jack Evans, a Ward 2 Democrat who fought to bring baseball to the city, had a checklist of items for the Lerners.

“They need to make themselves available to the city and the community,” he said. “Number two, they need to help me address the Comcast problem [and] get this team on TV. Number three, get the attendance up at RFK, starting out with promotions and all that stuff. Number four, take a look at RFK — how can we make the stadium more inviting? Number five, get their input quickly into the new stadium because we’ve got to get going on this. They’ve got a really short window and have to hit the ground running on a number of issues that will be critical to the team.”

Mark Lerner said in an interview that he would not tolerate poor concession service at RFK. Officials from the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission said the Lerner family will have a greater influence on getting Aramark to improve things, because they will be in a position to convey a desire for the long-term success of the franchise.

“I got their attention last year, but the advantage the Lerners have is that they can talk about the future,” said Allen Lew, the sports commission’s chief executive officer.

Officials from the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, the quasi-public agency charged with redeveloping the area near the ballpark, said the Lerners will have a direct impact on the efforts to turn the neighborhood into a retail and entertainment district. The Lerners already have experience working with developers like the Cordish Companies, Monument Realty and Forest City, who won a contract last year to develop the area. A master plan for the neighborhood is expected to be completed this summer.

“They’ll understand that the stadium itself is not just a baseball stadium,” AWC President Adrian Washington said. “It will be helpful having someone like the Lerners in the process, someone who knows retail and gets it.”

Washington said he believes the Lerners will easily grasp the city’s long-term vision for refurbishing the Anacostia riverfront.

“Nothing can compare to a family like the Lerners who have roots in the community and will be here for 50 years,” he said.

Staff writer Amy Doolittle contributed to this article.

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