An ownership change in name, but not in intentions

TORONTO - From the day he purchased the Nationals from Major League Baseball in 2006, Ted Lerner made it clear this would - and always would - be a family-run operation.

Though the patriarch of one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Washington would have final say over any organizational decisions, he insisted none would be made without consultation of the seven other top members of the club’s ownership group: his wife, Annette; his son, Mark; his daughters, Debra and Marla; his daughter-in-law, Judy; and his sons-in-law, Ed and Robert.

That ownership structure has at times been cumbersome and made seemingly simple decisions take more time than they should, but it has underscored what was evident from the beginning: This was never Ted Lerner’s team, it was the Lerners’ team.

This franchise would be family owned and operated, and it would be passed down from generation to generation, one factor that made the Lerners appealing to former MLB commissioner Bud Selig over the other groups that bid for the club a dozen years ago.

“The family model meant a lot to me,” Selig said way back on May 3, 2006, in selecting the Nationals’ new owners. “I’ve seen the family model work and it works well. There’s continuity. There’s stability. If you look back in our history, the family model works well.”

Rizzo and Lerner spring.jpgAnd so this morning’s announcement that MLB’s 29 other owners had unanimously approved the transfer of formal power from Ted to Mark Lerner, the son taking over the title of managing principal owner from his father, was surprising only in its timing but not in its meaning.

A plan of succession was always in place. Mark Lerner, 64, has always been the most visible member of the family, seated in the front row at Nationals Park next to the dugout, engaging with players, fans and media with a smile on his face and usually a curly W cap on his head. Truth be told, far more people associated with the Nats feel like they know Mark than Ted, the 92-year-old real estate mogul who despite his regular presence at the ballpark has mostly stayed out of public view.

The surprising aspect of today’s announcement was simply that it happened while Ted Lerner appears to remain in good health. He was at Nationals Park on Saturday, posing with Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, team president Dick Patrick and the Stanley Cup. He was in attendance at this morning’s MLB owners meeting in New York, where the vote was taken.

Perhaps Ted Lerner simply wanted to do this now, while he’s still fully engaged and can enjoy his remaining time watching the franchise chase the elusive title he just missed seeing his beloved Senators capture 370 days before he was born.

Perhaps he also wanted to make sure his son was back in good health before handing over power. It’s been a long 12 months for Mark Lerner, who last spring was diagnosed with a rare cancer. Through treatment he is now cancer-free, but complications forced doctors to amputate his left leg above the knee last summer. Ever upbeat and maintaining a positive outlook, he has since been fitted with a prosthetic leg and has been able to travel, attend spring training and regular season games, and return to living a normal life.

Now as the Nationals enter a key stage in their franchise’s history, with the All-Star Game coming to D.C. next month and Bryce Harper’s free agency looming this winter, Mark Lerner ascends to the organization’s top post. Which doesn’t mean he’ll be running this show as a solo act.

As has been the case throughout, this will be a family endeavor. Mark Lerner has been the public face of ownership for more than a decade, but behind the scenes Ed Cohen has been perhaps the key negotiator of major financial decisions. Marla Lerner Tanenbaum has taken the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation under her wing and helped grow that charitable arm of the franchise into a model for other sports franchises to emulate. Alan Gottlieb, chief operating officer of Lerner Sports, also remains an influential decision-maker within ownership.

If Rob Manfred some day presents the Commissioner’s Trophy to the owner of the Nationals upon winning its first World Series title, we now know he will hand it to Mark, not Ted, Lerner.

Really, though, he’ll be handing it to the entire Lerner family. A dozen years ago, they declared their intentions in no uncertain terms.

“This is an asset and a treasure that will stay in this family,” Mark Lerner said on that momentous spring day in 2006. “We all hope we are a part of this over the long term.”

The first name of the person who will now lead them forward may have just changed, but the last name - and, more importantly, the owners’ intentions - remain the same as they were on day one.

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