Two Words on the Nats' Owner: Abe Pollin
Many thousands of words out there today on the hooha over the selection of the Lerner family as the owner of the Washington Nationals. There's one of the best Boz columns in memory, in which Mr. Washington Baseball Himself takes us deep inside Bud Selig's mind and shows that there was never really any doubt that it would be the Lerners. There's Steve Pearlstein's excellent column blasting the race men of District politics for attempting to twist every last issue into a referendum on racial power and position. And there's a fine profile by Adam Bernstein and Dana Hedgpeth of the Lerners--especially fine when you note that nobody in the Lerner family would talk to us for this or any other story throughout this long, painful process.
I won't add to your reading burden on this except to offer two words: Abe Pollin. Among sports owners, there are a few types: Crazy super-rich guys on mad ego trips (Steinbrenner, Cuban, Snyder) who are fun to watch because they spend like drunken sailors and they're fabulously entertaining for fans. Corporations that somehow persuaded their boards to let them go off on really dumb adventures that sounded good because a bunch of executives drank the Kool-Aid on the notion of synergy between media companies and sports franchises (Tribune, Disney, New York Times). Rich sports nuts who aren't quite rich enough to create a successful team, in part because they insist on running it themselves.
And then there are the guys Bud Selig loves, the families that made a bundle--many bundles--in some prosaic field (car lots, shopping centers, pizza places, supermarkets) and got into sports in good part because of their deep roots in the town where they made their money.
The Lerners fit that model. So does the guy any sports team owner should want to model himself after: Abe Pollin. Sure, sure, his teams have suffered from chronic loser syndrome, and nobody wants the Lerners to follow that pattern. But as a business, the Wizards are one solid franchise. The Abe Pollin Center is the model of how to use a sports facility to revitalize a city. And in the matter of race and the volatile nature of politics in this city, you don't hear anybody accusing Abe Pollin of racism. Fans respect Pollin because he paid for his own arena, because he's committed to this city in a big way, and because he believes in good people, like Wes Unseld, not because he's black but because he's a straight, honest, talented guy. No one will argue that Unseld is a great sculptor of basketball success--the record shows that simply to be false--but Pollin has generally done the right thing, even when he got caught up in the Michael Jordan insanity.
The Lerners, like Pollin, are shy folks. They will not be the media-savvy owners who are the public face of their team, like a certain Mr. Snyder. They will be the moneybags in the background, which is as fans--and the city government--should want it. They will pick management and set them on their way toward creating a solid business. Ideally, they'll be more freespending and more rigorous in demanding success than Pollin has been, but they will hew to his model of the owner as the power behind the scenes and most definitely not the guy with his hands on the wheel. For that, we have Stan Kasten, who created the modern baseball juggernaut known as the Atlanta Braves.
And like Pollin, the Lerners are a progressive bunch who believe deeply in the importance of fighting for racial justice. My family doesn't use shopping malls, so I have nothing for you on the relative quality of the Lerners' projects around the region (White Flint, Tysons, Dulles Town Center). I do know that people in the real estate business think highly of them. What you can glean about the Lerners is that they are deeply invested in and committed to this region. Go to Bethesda and have a look at the Imagination Stage children's theater; it's a small gem and Lerner family money--all charity--played the essential role in getting it built. You'll see the family name on facilities at George Washington University and at the Ohr Kodesh synagogue in Chevy Chase, institutions that vouch for the Lerners' generosity.
When the rabble-rousers finally pipe down, the Lerners will find a way to start telling that story--without fanfare, without boasting. And then, far more important, their actions will speak for them.
As a reporter, I wish the Lerners had been willing earlier to allay some of these fears about race and intent. But the fact that they haven't made any public declaration says nothing about who they are other than that they, like Selig, value discretion and even a bit of modesty. First, they wanted the team and the rules as they understood them said no talking in public. (Obviously the other bid groups thought they were operating under different rules. Fat lot of good that did them.)
Now the Lerners have some proving to do. But for now, their track record is good enough for me.
By Marc Fisher |
May 3, 2006; 11:43 AM ET
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