For all the public backlash in the wake of the Washington Nationals‘ dismal 2008 season, no facet of the organization was scrutinized more than its ownership.
Managing principal owner Ted Lerner and his family, who gained control of the franchise from Major League Baseball in 2006, were for the first time called out by fans, city officials and even team employees as major contributors to the club’s problems.
Fans claimed the owners weren’t willing to spend the money necessary to improve the roster, whether by signing big-name free agents or meeting the demands of high draft picks.
City officials were upset by the group’s hard-nosed approach to business, most notably its refusal to pay rent on Nationals Park because it believed the stadium was not “substantially complete” when it opened at the end of March.
Team employees complained of poor morale in the organization and were upset that club president Stan Kasten wasn’t given the power promised him when he joined the ownership group.
But as the Nationals prepare to open the 2009 season, there are signs of some change. The Lerner family has recognized its mistakes and taken steps to rectify them, according to District officials, Nationals employees and officials of other major league clubs.
The Nationals more aggressively pursued free agents in the offseason, offering $180 million to slugger Mark Teixeira (who wound up signing a similar deal with the New York Yankees) and signing Adam Dunn to a contract that pays him an average of $10 million a season.
The club worked out a settlement with the District of Columbia that put the rent issue to rest for good.
And perhaps most significantly, ownership put more power in the hands of Kasten, who after the resignation this spring of embattled general manager Jim Bowden took on more responsibilities and day-to-day control of the Nationals.
The end result has been a better work environment, particularly in the baseball operations department.
“There’s been a closeness, a camaraderie that has developed from all of us having to pitch in on this trial by fire,” Kasten said. “Attitude has been great. There’s a pretty good atmosphere here, among the team and among the front office.”
Speculation last fall held that Kasten was unhappy with his role and was considering leaving the team. Yet as this season begins, Kasten is as visible as ever.
He spent more time at the team’s spring training home in Viera, Fla., than in any previous year. He was front and center managing the crisis when the team learned it was the victim of fraud involving a Dominican prospect. He was there again when the club accepted Bowden’s resignation in the wake of a federal investigation into his dealings in Latin America.
With a new GM yet to be named, Kasten has played a more active role in baseball decisions, even as he delegated much of that day-to-day work to Mike Rizzo, the team’s assistant GM.
“It’s been a challenge,” Kasten said. “I love all of my duties, the old ones and the new ones. There’s just a lot of them. But we’re getting through it. … It’s even more hours than I put in before, but how can I complain about that? We’re lucky to have these jobs. We’re lucky to be in this business. I’m just happy to be here.”
Meanwhile, small indications suggest Lerner and his family have grown more comfortable and less rigid in their management of the club. The family still rarely speaks publicly: Neither Ted Lerner nor his son, Mark, offered much public comment during the pursuit of Teixeira, and they remained silent during the Dominican controversy.
The Lerners seem unlikely to change their insular ways, but there are signs that they are becoming more aware of - and responsive to - public sentiment.
The family, a longtime supporter of Bowden, accepted his resignation to avoid a lingering controversy - an admittedly painful decision for the Lerners, but one necessary to begin the season on positive footing.
“I think it was good we were able to clear up some of the turmoil we had very quickly, and I think most fans respected that it was done very quickly and efficiently,” Kasten said. “Now, all our story lines are positive. I think fans are optimistic about this season because the team on the field looks to be much better.”
The signing of Dunn and the aggressive effort to land Teixeira, while unsuccessful, were clear antidotes to the perception that the Lerners were unwilling to spend money to compete. The decision to hire Levy Restaurants, thus switching concession providers for the second time in as many seasons, reflected a desire to continue to improve customer service at Nationals Park.
Some fans, however, will take some convincing after enduring a 59-win season.
“The ownership obviously has no intentions of putting any money in the team,” said Rich Malzone, an advertising executive from Montgomery County who declined to renew his partial season ticket plan for this season. “That’s the big thing. I wouldn’t expect them to spend like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Cubs, but they could be up there around that group. They’re just blowing smoke and saying, ‘Let’s build a new stadium and try to get better.’ But they’re not better.”
The Nationals did respond to some fan concerns by lowering ticket prices throughout the ballpark and offering staggered payment plans and new ticket packages as the economy took a downturn. The team also invested more heavily in promotions during the offseason, introducing the new “NatsTown” marketing campaign, hosting thousands at Nationals Park for the team’s fan fest in January and introducing a new version of the mascot, “Screech.”
Progress also has been made in repairing the strained relationship between the Lerner family and officials from the District of Columbia.
Last season, the family was embroiled in a nasty battle with the District over rent payments and construction costs at Nationals Park. But instead of pursuing a drawn-out legal battle into the offseason, the team accepted a settlement that effectively ends dispute over the stadium’s construction.
Quietly, though, city officials said the Lerners still like to drive a hard bargain, as evidenced by their resistance to allowing the Eagle Bank Bowl to be played at Nationals Park.
“Is it a true partnership in the way we’d like it to be and the way that I believe it can and will be in the future? In my estimation, not yet,” said a city official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to harm relations with the team. “It’s good. It’s going to get better. As long as there is no dispute between us, I think we’ll have some opportunities to work together in ways that will be seen as mutually beneficial.”