- The Washington Times
Thursday, February 21, 2013

VIERA, Fla. — Wearing one of his team’s new three-paneled batting practice caps and a red pullover, principal owner Mark Lerner strolled the backfields at the Washington Nationals’ spring training complex Thursday morning and soaked in the scene.

Enjoying his first full day down from Washington, Lerner watched live batting practice, chatted with a few of his players, and spent time with several front office executives.

He also took a few minutes to answer a range of questions about the team. Over the course of a roughly 10-minute session, Lerner chatted about everything Nationals — including getting over Game 5, the organization’s spring training venue situation, ticket sales, payroll, construction around the ballpark and the prospect of luring an All-Star Game.

Does arriving at spring training help put the team’s loss in Game 5 of the National League Division Series that much further back in your mind?

“I don’t know if you’ll ever forget that. I think it was so unexpected for so many of us that we got that far, it was a special moment. I think these guys have grown from it, I think they’ve put it behind them — and that’s the most important people it’s behind — but it was a great experience and we couldn’t be in a better position than we are right now. God willing, everybody stays healthy, and we’re talking next year about how much further we went this year.

“I was very excited about coming down. … It may be the most exciting team in baseball. We’ve come a long ways in four years.”

Is moving to a new spring training facility by 2014 still a possibility?

“We’ve still got a number of options and we continue to negotiate with the different cities and we’ll see what happens. I would doubt it. Just with the timing, it would just too tight. I would think next year we’ll still be in Viera. You just never know what’s going to happen, though.

Is it frustrating that it’s taken so long to figure out a situation that will work well for you?

“Yeah, the timing was a little bad with the economy and everything else. Florida has their economic troubles. But it’s something we have to fix. We can’t continue to drive 100-plus miles to our closest game — and we will get it fixed. It’s just dedication to get the right kind of situation for us. It’ll happen.”

Is there any possibility of working something out to stay in Brevard County long-term?

“We have an obligation here. We’re honoring it, but there’s nothing I can do and nothing they can do about fixing the geography problem, unfortunately. We’ve said many times: They’ve been great hosts to us and we love the people in the area, but it’s just something that we can’t fix, most likely, without moving.”

How different will the area around Nationals Park look this year?

“A lot is going on over at the Yards. I don’t know how much of it’s going to be ready for Opening Day, but it’s starting to happen again. The economy is getting there. A lot of buildings that I thought would start construction there in the last 12 months didn’t, like the ones right outside the ballpark. If you’re coming out the center field gate, I thought the ones on the left, one of them would start and they haven’t yet. There’s still issues out there, getting financing and other things that we deal with day-to-day, but I can’t wait for it all to start blossoming again. I think it’s going to be one of the great neighborhoods in town one day.”

Do you think that slow development is hindering your chances of getting an All-Star Game?

“I think it’s a possibility that it’s affecting it. It’s not a pretty sight when you walk out the door and see holes in the ground. … I think it’s unfortunate. I think baseball wants to see some things at least start to happen, a few of the buildings get done, but we’re going to get a game at some point.

“I don’t know how much of a factor it is in [Major League Baseball’s] decision-making, but I’ve got to believe that it is. It may not be No. 1 on the list but it could be three or four on the list. ‘Let’s see what happens around the park over the next few years.’ But I think things are going to start moving.”

With the payroll topping $100 million this season, are you at a point where you’ll do what you think is best without setting any type of cap?

“We try to be smart about it. We always have. There’s a lot of factors in this year, obviously. People with new and larger contracts kick in, Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano [were added]. I think it’s something that will always be fluid — but one thing is for sure, we’re never going to be stupid about how we do it.

“We try to control it and create our own kind of cap, but this is a special year. We have obviously incredible talent and there was a couple parts that [general manager Mike Rizzo] wanted and we said, ‘Do what you need to do,’ and that’s basically how it happened. I think each year, depending on where you are in the world, that’s how you’ll fix it. We’ll set our own cap of sorts.”

How much is keeping Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in Washington long-term at the forefront of what you’re thinking with regard to payroll no matter what move you’re making?

“To be smart about it you always have to look out a number of years and we’d certainly love to be able to keep them for the long-term, but I don’t think that’s where we are right now. I think we’re focused on this year and next year and 2015. Those decisions will take care of themselves as time goes on. But we do our projections out a few years. You have to if you’re being smart about it.”

Mike Rizzo only has one guaranteed year left on his contract, with two team option years for 2014 and 2015, is that something you think you need to address any time soon?

“I’m sure we’ll all sit down and talk when the time is right. He’s under control for a couple more years and I think this is the place where he wants to make his home and we certainly want him to be here, so I’m sure we’ll come to some understanding at some point in time. I think right now he’s focused on getting this team in shape and I think that’s his number one concern.”

How are ticket sales?

“Ticket sales have been great. We put a cap of 20,000 season tickets on earlier in the fall and we’re very close to it so it’s pretty exciting that we’ll have a chance to get there. Prices go up April 1 so if people want to take advantage of it, the next 30 days is really their time to act. But it’s been a terrific offseason.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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