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Thursday, May 5, 2022

OPINION:

They are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Larry Lucchino’s masterpiece up the road in Baltimore — Camden Yards, the ballpark that changed baseball.

As president of the Orioles back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was Lucchino who oversaw construction of the Baltimore ballpark that kicked off a wave of retro-style stadiums that helped revive the game.


He did the same a few years later with the San Diego Padres and Petco Park. Then, as president of the Red Sox, faced with the decline and possible demise of Fenway Park, Lucchino pushed instead to refurbish and protect the historic ballpark.

Along the way, he helped “reverse the curse,” with Boston winning its first World Series championship in 86 years in 2004, and going on to win two more in 2007 and 2013.

Theo Epstein was the general manager of the Red Sox for those championships. It was Lucchino who recognized something special in Epstein when he was an intern with the Orioles and it was Lucchino who brought him to San Diego and then Boston.

Lucchino will have a place in baseball’s Hall of Fame for his legacy as an executive — a legacy that began here in Washington, as a lawyer working for his mentor, Edward Bennett Williams.

It’s time for Lucchino to come home to Washington as the new owner of the Nationals.

We learned several weeks ago the Lerner family has hired the New York investment bank Allen & Company to look for buyers for the former Montreal Expos franchise that they bought from Major League Baseball in 2006 for $450 million.

The franchise is worth at least $2 billion now, according to the Forbes valuations.

The pandemic, coming of the heels of the Nationals’ World Series title in 2019, dealt the family a severe financial blow, both to their commercial real estate business and their baseball team, with losses of as much as $200 million over a season of empty seats in 2020 and a limited recovery in 2021, sources said.

Some of the names that have emerged as potential buyers have included Capitals and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, along with David Rubenstein, co-chairman and co-founder of Carlyle Group, a local and powerful financial investment firm. Leonsis is already partners with the Lerners, who are minority investors in Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the Leonsis company that owns the Capitals, Wizards and WNBA Mystics.

There has been speculation that Josh Harris and David Blitzer, owners of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils, would be interested bidders for the Nationals. They had sought ownership of the New York Mets when that club was for sale last year.

All this is sort of rounding up the usual suspects — those with money and interest in the business of sports franchises.

But they are outsiders in the cloistered club of baseball.

Lucchino is the ultimate insider.

This is how the Lerners emerged from a group of bidders seeking to buy the team in 2006. They brought former Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten in as a partner, and that was the difference-maker to put the Lerners over.

Any potential buyers with solid financing would have a leg up if they could bring Lucchino aboard in a bid for the Nationals.

He stepped down as CEO of the Red Sox after the 2015 season. He remains president/CEO emeritus of the Fenway Sports Group, the parent company of the Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club in the Premier League.

Lucchino, 76, spends much of his time these days as chairman of the Worchester Red Sox, their Class AAA affiliate, where they just opened a new $157 million ballpark, after moving from Pawtucket.

I asked him if he would be interested in making a play for the Nationals — a homecoming of sorts. 

“I am flattered to be sure, but currently I have my hands full with the Worcester Red Sox and our new, beautiful ballpark,” he said.

I suspect, though, that given the right circumstances, a return to Washington — where he got his start in the sports business as a vice president for the Washington Redskins when Williams owned the team in the mid-1970s — would appeal to Lucchino.

It should appeal to Nationals fans.

When he took over in Boston, he had a meeting with employees. The Red Sox had long been an institution in New England, but had a reputation as an arrogant organization when it came to connecting with their fans and the community.

Lucchino told them, “You’ve been in the ‘no’ business here for years. Now we’re going to be in the ‘yes’ business.” They grew the franchise to unprecedented heights by saying yes and being creative and visionary in their marketing and promotion — and making good baseball decisions.

The Lerners wasted years of opportunity to grow roots for this franchise in the Washington area. Yes, they rode their eight straight years of winning that led to the 2019 World Series title. But now it’s back to the lean years, with weak foundation roots.

The Nationals could use someone ready to say “yes.”

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.


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