- - Thursday, February 16, 2023

Two men who left giant footprints on this earth passed away this week — two men who accomplished great things and whose presence will be missed, with their achievements remembered for years to come.

Ted Lerner, the owner of the Washington Nationals, died Sunday at his home in Chevy Chase, Md. He was 97 years old, and his passing merited obituaries in both The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Most of us will have to pay to get death notices published.

Lerner left behind a legacy that in many ways has touched millions in the Washington metropolitan area. He was the developer of some of the biggest commercial properties in the region —— Tysons Corner I and II among them. He was a generous benefactor to Children’s National Hospital, the U.S. Holocaust Museum and George Washington University, among others.

He will be best known, perhaps, for being the owner of the Washington Nationals and presiding over a run of success that included four National League East division titles and a World Series championship, the first one in this community in nearly 100 years.

The other man of stature who passed away this week was Ron Labinski, who co-founded HOK Sport, a prominent Kansas City architectural firm that was noted for the development of many iconic sports stadiums throughout the country — more than 500 venues, including Arrowhead Field, built in 1972, renovated numerous times since and still celebrated as one of the best football stadiums in the country.

“What Ron has done for the world of sport — well, he’s leaving a legacy behind him,” Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said when Labinski retired in 2000.

Oracle Field in San Francisco, Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Progressive Field in Cleveland — all are among the ballparks and stadiums that Labinski helped design and influence. For his place in the world of architecture, he was elected as a member of the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows in 1994, the most prestigious honor in the organization.

Like Lerner, Labinski had an obituary in both The Washington Post and The New York Times. He, like Lerner, lived a life worthy of documenting and celebrating.

But the truth didn’t have to die as well with either of these men.

The Washington Nationals organization felt the need to go beyond the accomplishments of their late owner and manufacture this accolade, posting on their Twitter account: “Ted Lerner is the reason baseball came back to D.C. after 33 years.”

This is simply false, and either someone in the Nationals organization knew that or was oblivious to how baseball, in fact, did return to Washington not even a generation ago.

Major League Baseball, which owned the Montreal Expos franchise, moved to Washington in 2005 because city officials agreed to fully finance a new stadium. That’s the reason baseball came back to D.C. after 33 years. Trust me when I tell you that, as bizarre as it may seem now, that team was heading to Northern Virginia before the city agreed to pay up.

Then the team was put up for sale, not to the highest bidder, but for a set price of $450 million. There was no shortage of applicants seeking the team — eight of them, later cut down to three finalists, including a group led by businessman Jeff Zients (now White House chief of staff) and another bidder, former Seattle Mariners owner Jeffrey Smulyan. If either of those finalists had been selected, they would not have been responsible for the return of baseball to the city, either.

Ted Lerner and his family were ultimately selected as the new owners — but only after they agreed to take former Atlanta Braves executive Stan Kasten into their ownership group.    

Lerner accomplished much, so who knows why the need to embellish his contributions. But for anyone who was involved in the process of baseball coming back to his town, the truth is important and should not die as well.

Which brings us to Ron Labinski and the truth between the bricks and mortar.

How could I leave out his greatest achievement — designing Camden Yards? After all, it’s in the headline of The Washington Post — “Ron Labinski, whose firm designed Camden Yards … ”  

The obituary goes on to talk about the revolution in sports architecture that Camden Yards kicked off.

That’s true. And it’s also factually accurate that his firm, HOK, had the job of designing the new Orioles ballpark.

It’s also factual that Labinski’s firm had designed new Comiskey Park, the sterile, unappealing home for the Chicago White Sox — which opened one year before Camden Yards. It sticks out like a sore thumb among the Camden Yards offsprings that followed.

It’s the ballpark that HOK proposed to build in Baltimore.

The Orioles team president at the time, Larry Lucchino, told me for my book, “Home of the Game — the Story of Camden Yards” that the firm brought him a model of new Comiskey, which Lucchino proceeded to physically tear apart. “We just ripped one piece after another,” he said, making his point.

Thanks to the influence of Lucchino and the team’s design point person on the ballpark, architect Janet Marie Smith, HOK would come up with what became Camden Yards. And it did wind up starting a revolution in sports design that HOK was a big part of.

But the truth is they had to be browbeaten into leading that revolution.

These details do not diminish the lives of two great men. But to ignore both takes away what should never die — the truth. If you haven’t noticed, it’s hanging on by a thread.

You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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

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