Will Ted Lerner See Another All-Star Game in DC?
The Washington Nationals did an about face in their 2013 Rule 4 draft last week. For several years GM Mike Rizzo has pursued an aggressive draft strategy in which the team spent well beyond MLB recommended signing bonuses. If you were looking for a continuation of the Nationals spendthrift ways, look again.
Jake Johansen was the first selection by the Nationals last week, taken 68th overall. Johansen was not rated in the top 100 by MLB.com and Baseball America (BA) or anyone else. His highest ranking was 182nd by Baseball America. Johansen signed within 24 hours of his selection for exactly the $820,000 assigned to his slot. It is surprising that he signed for slot given his ranking, but he throws the high heat that Rizzo so covets in his pitching prospects.
The rest of the Washington draft followed the precedent set by Johansen. There were only two high school talents drafted in hopes that cash bonuses would lure them away from college commitments. The overall price tag for the Nationals haul will be well within MLB limits.
So what’s up? There is one theory that makes perfect sense. Washington Nationals owner Ted Lerner was a committed baseball fan in 1937 and ushered at the All-Star Game held at Griffith Stadium that year. He saw DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Mel Ott play in that game and has never forgotten. He still recounts how Dizzy Dean was hit in the foot by a line drive during the game and never recovered his form after the injury.
The game was played at Griffith Stadium again in 1956, then at RFK Stadium in 1962 and finally in 1969. During those years, Ted Lerner was busy investing in prime real estate around the metropolitan region and building one of the most highly valued real estate empires in the country. His net worth is estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
Lerner was not so busy that he forgot about baseball. He tried to buy the Baltimore Orioles in 1979 but Edward Bennett Williams won the rights to the team. He continued his interest in sports teams for the next few decades until he was finally successful in buying the Washington Nationals in 2006.
The last All-Star Game in DC–the 1969 game–was a masterpiece. The game of baseball was in trouble, losing fans to football and it was the year the mound was lowered after the 1968 All-Star Game was branded a “snoozer,” decided by a 1-0 score. Like baseball itself, the All-Star Game was losing its grip on fans and to get them back first-year Commissioner Bowie Kuhn created a fan vote on the greatest players of all time. Each major league city voted for its own best historical lineup. Overall tallies would determine best lineups for each league which were announced at a posh banquet at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in DC, attended by every sports celebrity at the time.
Did Ted Lerner go? He has not said, but he went to Roosevelt High School in Washington with Bowie Kuhn. Both men had worked at Griffith Stadium as boys, so it is hard to imagine the old friends did not get together for the 1969 game. Joe DiMaggio won the big award–Best Living Player–to the chagrin of Ted Williams who was the manager of the Washington Senators that year and remained in his Shoreham penthouse room rather than watch his rival take home the hardware.
Ted Lerner would like to see another All-Star Game in DC. Maybe it will not be the equal of the game in 1937 or the one in 1969, but he wants one nonetheless. The location of the game each year is determined by the Commissioner’s Office and no city has suffered longer without the game coming back than Washington. Commissioner Bud Selig has been accused of using the location of the All-Star game as a cudgel to keep owners in line over things like reigning in the vast bonuses paid in the amateur draft. So when Ted Lerner spent heavily on Stephen Strasburg and a bevy of other star talent in the 2009, 2010 and 2011 drafts, he was not reaching out for the All-Star Game, he was trying to build a winner.
Now that the Nationals have a substantial minor league organization and a team that is competitive enough to warrant consideration for championships, Ted Lerner can turn his attention to other things.
The All-Star Game is scheduled through 2015 when it will be held in the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Ted Lerner wants to see it held in DC in 2016 or better yet 2017, exactly 80 years after the first one. And if that means toeing the line with the Commissioner’s Office for the 2013 Amateur Draft, then that is what he will do. The real question is whether he will want Stephen Strasburg pitching in the All-Star Game, whenever it is held in DC. It might be tempting fate, risking another Dizzy Dean injury to a great pitcher in his prime. But he wants that All-Star Game in DC. And you can take that to the bank.