Unsportsmen of the Year In 2008, the Lerners taught us the meaning of ingratitude.

Welcome to the Dig Leagues: It’ll be a while before Lerner shovels out of his PR hole.
AP Photo/Kevin Wolf

Most memorable contests are won or lost at specific moments. When we think about the 1988 presidential race, for example, it’s about Michael Dukakis putting on his Army-man costume and driving that tank to a second-place finish. And the 2006 Tour de France conjures Floyd Landis grabbing the race by the nuggets by mainlining testosterone before pedaling up the Pyrenees.

There is something memorable about the battle for the 2008 Unsportsman of the Year Award, as well.

The decisive moment came in October, with the announcement from Ted and Mark Lerner, owners of the Washington Nationals, that they’d be paying the $3.5 million they owed the city in back rent on taxpayer-funded Nationals Park—but only in exchange for $4 million more in taxpayer-funded concessions.

That put the citizens’ tab on the stadium to, oh, about $1 billion and four million. And counting.

“I don’t understand that deal,” says Vincent C. Gray, chairman of the D.C. Council, speaking for pretty much an entire city. “They paid us the three-and-a-half million they owed us, and we give them four million. And that’s what they owed us anyway, no matter what?”

Game, set, Unsportsman of the Year. Kudos to the co-winners, Ted and Mark Lerner!

Though the Lerner boys showed true unsportsmanship throughout the year, capturing this annual dishonor wasn’t a sure thing until the rent-payback announcement. Not with Dan Snyder—the Lance Armstrong of the Unsportsman of the Year competition—up to his same ol’, same ol’.

A quick review of Snyder’s year in unsportsmanliness:

When Metro announced it could no longer provide the shuttle buses from train stations to FedExField for Redskins games, Snyder didn’t go out and hire a private firm to transport fans who couldn’t or wouldn’t drive to the stadium. He instead raised the parking rates by about 15 percent—to $40—on his even-more-captive customers.

And when Snyder tired of fans complaining about waiting in long security lines at his stadium’s entrances, he didn’t hire more security staff or open more entrances. He sold fans a pass that let ticketholders bypass those lines—for a $100 premium! When Snyder realized his squad didn’t have much legitimate Pro Bowl talent, he organized a ballot-stuffing campaign, complete with a barrage of pop-up ads that hit anybody who surfed by the team’s Web site.

And when Snyder’s own sports radio network, formed to attack his attackers in the traditional media, attracted an audience too small to even register with Arbitron, he bought up the only legitimate sports station in town, WTEM-AM. And then he put his sidekick, Vinny Cerrato, on the air as a DJ, if only during weeks when the Skins win.

But unsportsmanly as Snyder surely was, nothing he did in 2008 sunk to the level of the Lerners’ $4-million-will-get-you-$3.5-million horse trade.

For the city’s taxpayers and the shrunken Nationals fan base—a subculture dubbed the “MASN 9,000” after the purported size of the team’s TV audience—the Lerners’ rent scam was one more example of the baseball owners kicking a gift horse in the mouth.

All year, they hit more wrong notes than a grade-school cellist. The Lerners, after all, had responded to the initial reports about the unpaid rent not by apologizing but by threatening to dock the city $100,000 a day until the stadium they’d been using for months was, to their way of thinking, “finished.” The Nationals had played nearly 50 home games in the allegedly unfinished stadium by that point.

And the Washington Post’s story on the settlement said the Lerners had registered “47,000 construction-related” complaints about Nationals Park with the city during its first season occupying the public digs.

47,000? Geez, Louise!

If the Lerners were ever invited on Extreme Makeover, it’s easy to imagine them chasing the pro bono painting crew around yelling, “You missed a spot!”

The rent-nonpayment story melded with the ingrate profile the Lerners had otherwise carved for themselves in the city. They scheduled two big team events—their first since moving in to taxpayer-funded Nationals Park—at locations in Maryland: Washington Nationals FanFest was booked for Bethesda, and the team’s biggest charity fundraiser, called the Dream Gala, took place at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center in Oxon Hill.

Mark Lerner said they went for the out-of-bounds venue because the Gaylord Center management let them use that building for free. Even so, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham told the Post, the Lerners’ leaving the city that had gifted them with a 10-figure stadium “was like taking a stick and poking your eye.”

Ralph Nader, a vocal opponent of using public money for Nationals Park, says he’s not surprised the Lerners act as if they’re owed another billion.

“All these demands made by the Lerners look bad,” Nader says. “They wanted all the signs at the stadium paid for by the taxpayer. They wanted all the uniforms paid for by the taxpayer. It’s just outrageous. But once you open the door to taxpayer-funded stadiums, you lock yourself in. These deals are crazy and negotiated secretly with all sorts of codicils. This is what you get.”

An aura of cheapness seeped into the baseball side of the Lerners’ operation also.

Being lousy on the field, as the Nats have surely been—they ain’t called the Gnats for nothing—leads to high draft choices. That’s only a benefit if a team signs its picks.

The Nationals used the ninth overall pick of Major League Baseball’s 2008 draft on Aaron Crow, a University of Missouri righthander who went 13–0 with a 2.35 ERA, 127 strikeouts, and only 38 walks.

But the team never signed him. Though the Nats’ and the player’s offers were within a six-figure sum of each other, Crow let the signing deadline pass this summer rather than ink a deal with the Lerners’ organization.

The bad PR situation became worse when Kevin Crow, Aaron’s father, went to the press with details of the Nats’ bargaining tactics. He told the Kansas City Star this fall that after drafting his son, the Nationals tried circumventing normal negotiating practices by attempting to work through Crow’s family rather than his agents.

“They kept calling, and I kept telling them I wasn’t involved in the negotiations,” said Kevin Crow. “I’m sure every major-league team would love to negotiate with the parents of players because we’re not professionals at this.”

Aaron Crow eventually signed with the Fort Worth Cats, an independent minor league team.

“It was more than just not signing the first-round pick,” says Chris Needham, who this summer gave up his popular Nats blog, Capitol Punishment, after four seasons. He attributes his retirement at least in part to the team owners’ attitude. “Not signing the first-round draft pick fed into a storyline about the Lerners’ being cheap, and there was a lot of stuff already in that. I think the Opening Day payroll this year, even with the new stadium, was lower than it had been at any point since the team was in Montreal. It was a disastrous year for them from a PR standpoint. The biggest problem with the Lerners is: They don’t seem to give a rat’s ass.”

Needham not only gave up his Nats blog this year; he says he’s also decided not to renew his season tickets.

That’s the sort of reward an Unsportsman of the Year really deserves.

Our Readers Say

Unsportsmen of the year label is unfair to the Lerners. We get that the paper was never in favor of funding a stadium, but that is not the Lerners fault. They didn't make out BIG in this whole deal it was MLB and the other 29 owners that reaped the benefits. The Lerners paid $450 million for the team and an additional $50 for renovations to the stadium. They did not get the stadium free and clear. Everyone who knows the Lerners say they are sticklers for the following contracts. It may not have been the right thing to do PR wise, but it is the way they run their businesses. When there are leaks in the clubhouse, there is something wrong. The Lerners should take a PR course and understand that you don't run a baseball team they way you run other business, but they take DC for a ride, as you implicate in your article.

As for Adam Crow, he never wanted to play for DC. He was given a chance to sign for top money and turned it down. Time will tell if the Nats or he made the wrong choice. Furthermore, there was no mention of the team going out and trying to sign Teixeira. The Lerners aren't cheap. They have a plan and they are sticking to it.

Ease up on the owners and the team. It is great to have baseball back in DC.
Gotta agree with Brian. The only recourse the Lerners had in order to get the stadium completed was to withhold the rent. BTW, the stadium includes a lot of areas other than the playing field and the seating bowl, including the adjacent office building. It's my understanding from stories in the Post that the bulk of the unfinished work was in the office building. The Lerners' primary business is real estate - I think you have to presume that, in that arena, anyway, they know what they're doing.

With respect to Aaron Crow, according to Jim Bowden, he called Crow's father only after Crow's agents refused to respond to his repeated phone messages. Now, maybe Bowden is lying, but my take on this is that there's plenty of blame to spread around for the failure to sign Crow. Ultimately, I think he just didn't want to play for the Nats.
oh, c'mon, Brian. yes, the Lerners payed a combined $500 million for a team worth (at the time) $450 million and basically free use of a $700 million stadium. (why do I say basically free? because if they had financed the $700+ million the stadium cost to build, they'd be prying a lot more than $3.5 million in interest every year. they would have had to finance the stadium at .5% apy to get those sorts of costs. figure a more reasonable (for the time) 5%, and they'd be paying $35 million a year in interest alone. so they paid $5 for something that someone else had already paid $12 for. how is that not a good deal? you know, in 7-8 years, when the team is winning (cough cough) and the neighborhood is completely developed, it might seem like a good plan, but right now, the City is losing money on the deal.
Lerners have failed to live up to the promises they have made to DC. The PR for the Nationals have failed to reach out to the community and I think the city waste money by funding National Park. The on field performance is a joke I can't understand how they think they are going to build a team when they can't even sign their first round draft pick.
The Nats have done a lot in the community. Here is just an example:

Season Ticket Donation Program - Ongoing
In partnership with Most Valuable Kids, a non-profit ticket distribution organization, we will continue to provide this service to our Season Ticket Holders. Not only can any unused tickets be mailed in or dropped off that they wish to donate to area non-profits but tickets may also be mailed in or turned in to the Community Relations department at least 48-72 hours in advance of the game. They can also be transferred on-line. In 2007, over 11,200 tickets were donated by our season-ticket holders.
Community Outreach Programs - Ongoing

* Over the past three years, a total of 93 players and 24 First Ladies have made 365 appearances -- to create an overwhelmingly positive influence in the Greater Washington D.C. community; with engagements ranging from meet and greets, baseball clinics, and school appearances to hospital visits, fundraisers, and numerous other philanthropic initiatives.
* In 2005, 39 players made 66 appearances in the community; in 2006, 32 players and 12 "First Ladies" (players' wives and girlfriends) made 85 community appearances; and in 2007, 63 players made 214 appearances.
* Over the course of three years (2005-2007) over 90% of Nationals players have made at least three (3) appearances in the community every season.
* Moreover, players make on field visits to various groups that attend Nationals games, including over 10 meet-and-greets with disabled war veterans (DAV) in 2007.
* Additionally, all players participate in the annual Washington Nationals Dream Foundation Gala, a night of celebration and fundraising to develop community partnerships that improve the lives of children and families across the Washington Capital Region.
* Last season (2007), every Nationals player was encouraged to make at least one (1) community appearance per month during the course of the season.
* At least three (3) or more Nationals players sign autographs for fans before the start of every Nationals home game.
* Nationals front office staff and executives have participated in several community-related efforts, e.g. speaking engagements at school fairs, "adopting" families during the Holidays, Thanksgiving food collections, etc.
* Over the past three seasons, the Washington Nationals have donated over $210,000.00 in autographed memorabilia to benefit DC area charities and non-profits; more than 171,000 tickets have been given to children and community groups in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia; in total more than 2, 500 charities have benefited from our various donation programs since 2005.

Nationals Employee Volunteer Program
It's not just the Players and Coaches that make a difference off the field, Nationals employees do so as well. Our employees participate in food delivery programs, canned food drives, cleanups and our Adopt-A-School program.

It's funny how District residents overwhelmingly opposed public financing for a stadium, city leaders built it anyway, and now it's not generating revenue, its tenants won't pay the rent, and then--THEN!--to refute the overwhelming impression that the team's owners are cheapskates and bad sports, this guy tells us that last season, "every Nationals player was encouraged to make at least one (1) community appearance per month during the course of the season."

I mean, that's too (2) funny!
these type of articles are simply ridiculous. First of all, it is incorrect to even call this 'tax payer' stadium... and constantly state the DC taxpayers are paying for this ballpark. That is flat out FALSE.
The DC government sold BONDS to pay for this stadium, through a deal with MLB, not the Lerners. When those bonds mature, the DC gov. will be required to pay them back to the INVESTORS who purchased the bonds, plus interest. See any mention of taxpayer in there?? Unless they invested! The tax revenue model DC ran for this ballpark district shows that DC will make its money back tenfold.
Now, I know people will scream and holler about the economy and real estate market NOW- but that is irrelevant to the deal that was struck when it was struck. Even if the market is sour for several years before turning around and DC doesn't make its revenue killing now- it will in the several years following. This was a win-win for DC, the only ones complaining are either ignorant (like the writer), or using buzz-words for political gain.
As early as midseason this year- WaPost had an article about the DC gov. expanding the amenities at the waterfront property on the other side of the Anacostia (don't remember the name)... due to greater than expected revenue streams from the ballpark district!
This has stadium had nothing to do with taxpayers, maybe the road improvements do- but that was scheduled improvements anyway- they just came online earlier because of the ballpark.

the only way this comes back to bite the 'taxpayer' is if the Lerners go bankrupt and the stadium is abandoned, so its generating NOTHING. You think that will happen?? Of course not...
Oh... and the Lerners are well within their right to hold back paying rent for something called BREACH OF CONTRACT. The DC gov. is lucky the Lerners are not suing them- and they know it- why do you think all DC is doing is bad press? Why doesn't DC sue the Lerners for holding rent? Because they cannot- because DC gov knows they are the ones in the WRONG.
Look at it this way- if you were renting an apartment and your lease stipulated that the landlord would fix the plumbing and electrical if it broke... what would you do if you went a whole year with no water in the kitchen sink and no lights in the bedroom? You would be furious- and you would threaten and refuse to pay rent until that 'lazy bum' came to your place and fixed your sink and lights!
The Lerners contract states the Ballpark (which includes the connected office building) would be completed.
The office building is not completed- this is where the Nats corporate offices are supposed to be located, along with conference rooms for corporate parties, street side retail shops, and a wing for the baseball Hall of Fame I believe. The Lerners are still forced to use their own completed nearby office building for Nats headquarters due to DC gov's lack of work completion- how much money you think the Lerners have lost not being able to lease that space out to a new tenant? No conference room rentals? Corporate parties? No street side retail tenants?
DC is lucky the Lerners didn't haul them into court- contract law is very simple and finite.
Wake up people- and stop reading this drivel on this website. I am
Eric....What in the world have you been smoking.
What in the world is Eric smoking.He must work for the Lerners.

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