During those dark days of late May, when the Nationals owned the second-worst record in the National League and calls for change were growing from outside the organization, Mark Lerner did exactly what the clubhouse did. He stuck with his guys, especially manager Davey Martinez.
“It never crossed my mind to dismiss Davey, no matter all the pressure that was put on us,” Lerner, the Nationals’ managing principal owner, said this evening before Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. “I think he’s become a very, very good manager, and I think in the years to come, he will become a great manager. I have total confidence in him, and I’m delighted that all these good things are happening. Nobody deserves it more than him.”
Lerner and his family, who purchased the franchise in 2006, have never retained a manager for three full seasons. And in parting ways with Dusty Baker after back-to-back NL Division Series losses in 2016 and 2017, the organization made it clear the club’s next manager would expected to win in October.
Martinez’s first club didn’t even reach October, going 82-80 last season. And after a 19-31 start to this season, the odds of a massive turnaround were steep.
Even if he didn’t believe a managerial change was in order, Lerner was realistic about his team’s chances at that point.
“Obviously I wasn’t too happy,” he said. “Nobody was. I couldn’t imagine what happened the rest of the season. I would have never believed where we are today. A turnaround like that only happens once in a blue moon, so I can’t say I totally expected it. I didn’t.”
Flash forward five months and now Lerner’s team is one win from its first World Series appearance, the first by any Washington ballclub since 1933. The Nationals have already won three elimination games, including a wild card win over the Brewers and a Game 5 win in the NLDS only six days ago at Dodger Stadium. That has made for something of a surreal experience.
“Very much so,” Lerner said. “I was talking to my sister last night; it’s just hard to believe, just the whole thing. Even if we didn’t have this turnaround season, if it was just a solid season, to get to this point is just such a special thing. And we’re in uncharted waters. The Cardinals have been through it. The Dodgers have been through it. This is all new for everybody in this building. So it’s very special.”
Lerner has been through quite a personal journey himself. He spent much of the 2017 season away from the ballpark while battling a type of cancer, spindle cell sarcoma, that ultimately required the amputation of his left leg.
Though he has traveled to spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla., last week he made his first road trip with the team since the surgery, attending Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS in St. Louis.
Lerner officially assumed control of the franchise in 2018 after his father, Ted, stepped down as managing principal owner. Ted Lerner, who was an usher at Griffith Stadium for the 1937 All-Star Game, celebrates his 94th birthday today.
“He’s been pretty calm about it,” Mark Lerner said. “He’s not the most positive guy in the world. But he’s enjoying it very much. He had a big smile on his face this morning. I think for the first time, all of us felt we are going to get to the World Series. Last night was a very important game.”
There are important decisions facing the organization once this season ends, none more so than the attempt to re-sign third baseman Anthony Rendon to a long-term deal. Rendon, who is set to become a free agent after the World Series concludes, has been in on-and-off negotiations with the Nationals throughout the season. To date, the two sides haven’t been able to agree to terms.
“We certainly want to keep him,” said Lerner, who watched Bryce Harper leave this spring to sign a record-setting contract with the Phillies. “That’s 110 percent. It’s really in Tony’s and his family’s hands at this point. They have to decide what they want to do. He’s earned that right as a free agent. It couldn’t happen to a better guy. We love him to death. And I hope that his decision is to stay here, and I’ll go pick him up and bring him over.”
No matter what happens this offseason, the Nationals are beginning to recognize what this postseason will mean for the long-term success of the franchise. An organization that has grown from a perennial loser to a perennial contender now is one step away from experiencing an iconic moment that will have ramifications long after this current group of players retires.
“People always say if you make it to the World Series, it really helps in many ways,” Lerner said. “I think we’re well established even if this didn’t happen, but it can’t hurt. We have a great fan base. We worked hard at it. We started, as you know, and a lot of our fans were 8 and 9 years old. And now they have their own families. So we’ve built the fan base the right way, and we’re very proud of that.”