Welcome to the Dig Leagues: It?ll be a while before Lerner shovels out of his PR hole. Credit: AP Photo/Kevin Wolf

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Most memorable contests are won or lost at specific moments. When we think about the 1988 presidential race, for example, it’s about Michael Dukakis putting on his Army-man costume and driving that tank to a second-place finish. And the 2006 Tour de France conjures Floyd Landis grabbing the race by the nuggets by mainlining testosterone before pedaling up the Pyrenees.

There is something memorable about the battle for the 2008 Unsportsman of the Year Award, as well.

The decisive moment came in October, with the announcement from Ted and Mark Lerner, owners of the Washington Nationals, that they’d be paying the $3.5 million they owed the city in back rent on taxpayer-funded Nationals Park—but only in exchange for $4 million more in taxpayer-funded concessions.

That put the citizens’ tab on the stadium to, oh, about $1 billion and four million. And counting.

“I don’t understand that deal,” says Vincent C. Gray, chairman of the D.C. Council, speaking for pretty much an entire city. “They paid us the three-and-a-half million they owed us, and we give them four million. And that’s what they owed us anyway, no matter what?”

Game, set, Unsportsman of the Year. Kudos to the co-winners, Ted and Mark Lerner!

Though the Lerner boys showed true unsportsmanship throughout the year, capturing this annual dishonor wasn’t a sure thing until the rent-payback announcement. Not with Dan Snyder—the Lance Armstrong of the Unsportsman of the Year competition—up to his same ol’, same ol’.

A quick review of Snyder’s year in unsportsmanliness:

When Metro announced it could no longer provide the shuttle buses from train stations to FedExField for Redskins games, Snyder didn’t go out and hire a private firm to transport fans who couldn’t or wouldn’t drive to the stadium. He instead raised the parking rates by about 15 percent—to $40—on his even-more-captive customers.

And when Snyder tired of fans complaining about waiting in long security lines at his stadium’s entrances, he didn’t hire more security staff or open more entrances. He sold fans a pass that let ticketholders bypass those lines—for a $100 premium! When Snyder realized his squad didn’t have much legitimate Pro Bowl talent, he organized a ballot-stuffing campaign, complete with a barrage of pop-up ads that hit anybody who surfed by the team’s Web site.

And when Snyder’s own sports radio network, formed to attack his attackers in the traditional media, attracted an audience too small to even register with Arbitron, he bought up the only legitimate sports station in town, WTEM-AM. And then he put his sidekick, Vinny Cerrato, on the air as a DJ, if only during weeks when the Skins win.

But unsportsmanly as Snyder surely was, nothing he did in 2008 sunk to the level of the Lerners’ $4-million-will-get-you-$3.5-million horse trade.

For the city’s taxpayers and the shrunken Nationals fan base—a subculture dubbed the “MASN 9,000” after the purported size of the team’s TV audience—the Lerners’ rent scam was one more example of the baseball owners kicking a gift horse in the mouth.

All year, they hit more wrong notes than a grade-school cellist. The Lerners, after all, had responded to the initial reports about the unpaid rent not by apologizing but by threatening to dock the city $100,000 a day until the stadium they’d been using for months was, to their way of thinking, “finished.” The Nationals had played nearly 50 home games in the allegedly unfinished stadium by that point.

And the Washington Post’s story on the settlement said the Lerners had registered “47,000 construction-related” complaints about Nationals Park with the city during its first season occupying the public digs.

47,000? Geez, Louise!

If the Lerners were ever invited on Extreme Makeover, it’s easy to imagine them chasing the pro bono painting crew around yelling, “You missed a spot!”

The rent-nonpayment story melded with the ingrate profile the Lerners had otherwise carved for themselves in the city. They scheduled two big team events—their first since moving in to taxpayer-funded Nationals Park—at locations in Maryland: Washington Nationals FanFest was booked for Bethesda, and the team’s biggest charity fundraiser, called the Dream Gala, took place at the Gaylord National Resort and Conference Center in Oxon Hill.

Mark Lerner said they went for the out-of-bounds venue because the Gaylord Center management let them use that building for free. Even so, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham told the Post, the Lerners’ leaving the city that had gifted them with a 10-figure stadium “was like taking a stick and poking your eye.”

Ralph Nader, a vocal opponent of using public money for Nationals Park, says he’s not surprised the Lerners act as if they’re owed another billion.

“All these demands made by the Lerners look bad,” Nader says. “They wanted all the signs at the stadium paid for by the taxpayer. They wanted all the uniforms paid for by the taxpayer. It’s just outrageous. But once you open the door to taxpayer-funded stadiums, you lock yourself in. These deals are crazy and negotiated secretly with all sorts of codicils. This is what you get.”

An aura of cheapness seeped into the baseball side of the Lerners’ operation also.

Being lousy on the field, as the Nats have surely been—they ain’t called the Gnats for nothing—leads to high draft choices. That’s only a benefit if a team signs its picks.

The Nationals used the ninth overall pick of Major League Baseball’s 2008 draft on Aaron Crow, a University of Missouri righthander who went 13–0 with a 2.35 ERA, 127 strikeouts, and only 38 walks.

But the team never signed him. Though the Nats’ and the player’s offers were within a six-figure sum of each other, Crow let the signing deadline pass this summer rather than ink a deal with the Lerners’ organization.

The bad PR situation became worse when Kevin Crow, Aaron’s father, went to the press with details of the Nats’ bargaining tactics. He told the Kansas City Star this fall that after drafting his son, the Nationals tried circumventing normal negotiating practices by attempting to work through Crow’s family rather than his agents.

“They kept calling, and I kept telling them I wasn’t involved in the negotiations,” said Kevin Crow. “I’m sure every major-league team would love to negotiate with the parents of players because we’re not professionals at this.”

Aaron Crow eventually signed with the Fort Worth Cats, an independent minor league team.

“It was more than just not signing the first-round pick,” says Chris Needham, who this summer gave up his popular Nats blog, Capitol Punishment, after four seasons. He attributes his retirement at least in part to the team owners’ attitude. “Not signing the first-round draft pick fed into a storyline about the Lerners’ being cheap, and there was a lot of stuff already in that. I think the Opening Day payroll this year, even with the new stadium, was lower than it had been at any point since the team was in Montreal. It was a disastrous year for them from a PR standpoint. The biggest problem with the Lerners is: They don’t seem to give a rat’s ass.”

Needham not only gave up his Nats blog this year; he says he’s also decided not to renew his season tickets.

That’s the sort of reward an Unsportsman of the Year really deserves.