Ted Lerner Nationals legacy spoonful misery dash glory

The Washington Nationals will open the season Thursday in honor of their late owner, Ted Lerner, by inducting him into the Ring of Honor ahead of the game against the Atlanta Braves

They will put his name in the Ring of Honor, just below the owner’s suite at Nationals Park. There will also be a crest on the sleeves of their home and away jerseys – TNL, the initials of Ted Lerner – to commemorate the man who died on February 12 at the age of 97.

Under his leadership, the Nationals won a World Series championship — the first in this city in nearly 100 years — and that’s certainly a feat worth celebrating. As players often say, “Once you’ve won a championship, no one can take it away from you.” It is, in a way, sporting immortality.

But once Thursday’s ceremonies are over, the Nationals and their $80 million witness protection roster will face 39 games against the Braves, Phillies and Mets — three National League East Division rivals with a payroll which eclipses that of the Nationals.

The results of those lags, when all is said and done at the end of this season, will also be part of Lerner’s legacy.

Yes, he won a title, but Lerner will also be remembered for running the Washington baseball team as one of the malls that made him rich.

Don’t be surprised if Nationals Park later this summer looks like the since-demolished Landover Mall in its waning days.

I never understood how Lerner spent decades chasing a sports franchise — he tried to buy the Baltimore Orioles in 1979 and was a bidder for the Washington Redskins in 1999 — then, when Major League Baseball awarded to the Nationals family in 2006, he ran the franchise as if it were a tax deduction.

I know they expended talent on the court in the eight years of winning that led to four Nationals NL East division titles and the World Series championship. But for someone who has been hailed as a business visionary, he never seemed to understand the importance of establishing a foundation among a fan base that had been without baseball for 34 years.

The Nationals, now in their 18th season, are still a young franchise.

There hasn’t been enough time for generations of fans to put down roots for any franchise to have to stay strong for years to come.

Supposedly, it was the plan to lose early and often to get top draft picks — early rounders like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper — to build the roster. This plan was actually the plan of Scott Boras, the agent who targeted the Nationals owner from his last savings and loans.

It worked, based on winning results from 2012 to 2019. But they paid the price. They wasted a surprising first season with a competitive team that finished 81-81 and attracted 2.7 million fans. They inherited that team in 2006 and spent the next five years chasing fans, at an important time when they needed to build that base.

Lerner, a Washington native who should have known better, never seemed to care or understand the need to aggressively market a sports team in a city where the football team at the time was still a huge and dominant local presence.

They opened Nationals Park in 2008 and lost 102 games, attracting just 2.3 million fans. As one senior baseball official told me, “Nobody has a plan to open a new baseball diamond and lose 100 games.”

The organization, during its winning streak, has consistently drawn $2.5 million to Nationals Park. But in their 2019 championship season, the Nationals drew just 2.26 million fans.

Then COVID-19 hit, something no one could have been prepared for. The Nationals were particularly hard hit, missing out on the chance to capitalize on the business side of their World Series title.

Since then, there has been one losing season after another, with the worst coming last season, a 55-107 mark. They barely crossed the 2 million mark and are now trying to sell the future based on the many prospects – many of whom remain in the minor leagues – that general manager Mike Rizzo was able to acquire during the dismantling of the franchise which sent Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Juan Soto racing.

The Lerner family is gone, except for Thursday’s ceremony honoring the memory of their patriarch. Their efforts to sell the team have stalled due to the MASN television dispute which may not be resolved until the Orioles – essentially MASN – are sold. That won’t happen until disabled Orioles patriarch Peter Angelos, 93, dies.

Who knows what will be left of this Nationals franchise by then?

This season in Washington is going to be a tough sell to a still-teenage fan base, especially for an organization that never understood or cared enough about selling even in its prime years.

It shouldn’t be that difficult.

There’s no reason the Nationals, with a bit more salary spending this season — as it was in the early Lerner years — couldn’t field a more competitive team while still achieving the goal. to develop young players. I know this is the strategy the front office wanted to pursue.

Instead, they opted to field a squad made up of rejects, last-ditch opportunities and up-and-coming young talent – ​​with a rock-bottom payroll.

Open the doors.

Listen to Thom Loverro on The Podcast of the Kevin Sheehan show.


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