WHILE WE BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME?
[March 31st] -- The start of the second season is just days away, and many questions that have surrounded the Washington Nationals this past off-season remain unanswered. Who will the owner be? Has Jim Bowden's poor personnel moves doomed the team to a last place finish? Will Washington be able to see more than just a handful of games on TV anytime soon? All of these questions, however, and many more, can be combined and asked in a different way.
What has the tumultuous off-season done to baseball in Washington?
Which RFK Stadium will greet the Nationals this summer? Will it be the one full of frenzied fans, filling every seat from the stadium's waffle-topped roof all all the way down to the lowest box seat, or will it be the half full, half-hearted stadium populated by fans with nothing else better to do on a warm summer's eve?
I'm not sure that anyone knows at this point.
The Nationals drew nearly 34,000 fans last year having little television exposure and litle more than "word of mouth" advertising to excite the community. The fans came during that magnificent first half when the team surged to a 50-31 record, and the fans came when the team fell flat on it's face, limping home with a 30-51 effort. Fans were willing to put up with the craziness because they knew, they knew, that come that fall, the team would have a stadium, an owner, a resolution to the cable tv fight and a general manager capable of putting together a team able enough to compete with the teams in the N.L. East. How have they done? With the Nationals back in D.C. this morning, the team has a new stadium to play in.
In three years.
To make matters worse, the Jack Abramoff fiasco has scared away hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ticket-buying lobbyists, shrinking the ticket base before the season even begins. But how will the Nationals' fans react to the continued uncertainty that surrounds their team? Ticket sales are down, not a lot, but their down nonetheless. When the team loses six in a row, or seven out of nine, how many fans will come to the "old lady"on a hot humid night to watch a team struggling to remain competitive?
I don't know.
it's been a several years since I've lived in Washington, but I suppose the old saying remains true: "Everyone in Washington is from somewhere else." Part of RFK will always be full of fans from St. Louis to watch the Cardinals, from Philadelphia to watch the Phillies, and from Los Angeles to watch the Dodgers. They will always be there. The Nationals fans, well, there I'm not so sure.
Most all of us didn't become baseball fans in September of 2004. No, we have been fans since we were kids, rooting on other teams in other cities. Not because we wanted to, because we had to. Many supported the Braves because they were on TBS every night. Others supported the Orioles, remembering the lyrics from a song that rocked D.C. during the last year the Senators were in Washington, "If you can't be with the one you love, then love the one you're with."
Many Washingtonians were Orioles' fans because it was "convenient." Those Orioles' fans, those Braves' fans who boxed up their team hats and pennants in favor of the Nats must now be wondering if it was a wise choice.
Will the fans of Washington take their anger out on the team? They won't be able to turn their collective backs on the D.C. City Council, or Bud Selig, or Jack Abramoff, or Jim Bowden, or Peter Angelos, or even Comcast Cable. But they can turn their backs on the Nationals. Oh, it won't be like that, really. But perhaps Lake Burke, or the Smithsonian, or the C & O Canal, or the battlefields of Manassas will take priority. Sure, the radio might be tuned to the Nationals' station, or they'll check the internet when they get home to see how they did, but the team won't have quite the priority that it once did.
Have you ever wondered why baseball is so important in St. Louis? Because there is nothing else to do.
I lived there for several years, and can attest to the fact that the Cardinals are it. But in Washington, there are literally hundreds of attractions to keep it's people busy. The Nationals may one day be at the top of that list, but they'll have to earn it.
And until there is an owner and a cable agreement and and new general manager and a completed stadium, we have to hope that the fans on the periphery "stay tuned."
We'll be here. Will they?
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