If you are reading something I wrote, you must have more than a passing interest in sports. Therefore, you have to know already that major league
baseball has returned to Washington DC this year after a 34-year hiatus. If that news item has escaped your awareness, let me welcome you back to the
world of the conscious from your coma.
The baseball poets have gone into ecstatic - almost orgasmic - states as they have written about this glorious event. I won't bother to cite any of
the hundreds of articles and columns on this subject here because I don't want to endorse that hyperbolic view of the world. I'd rather talk about the
Washington Nationals - late of Montreal as the Expos - from a reality-based perspective.
Here is where the baseball poets and I seem to agree:
If baseball is indeed America's national pastime, then having a team based in the capital of the nation is a good idea.
Montreal had not supported the Expos well for at least a decade and the team should have been contracted rather than leaving it there to die on the
The Baltimore Orioles are not the "home team" for a significant fraction of the DC area baseball fans and their support for the Orioles over the years
was more a "target of opportunity" than an "expression of passion".
I believe that the baseball poets and I part company at that point. Here are some facts and some opinions from a dedicated sports fan - one who likes
baseball and who has traveled to see games further than Baltimore in each of the last several years - about the Washington Nationals in specific and
baseball in Washington in general.
The city of Washington DC including its surrounding suburbs is not a good sports town. I have taken a lot of shots at Atlanta and Miami over the years
as bad sports towns and I have had not much good to say about New Orleans in that dimension either. Washington is not as bad as those three places,
but it is a whole lot closer to them than it is to the really good sports towns in the US. Outside the core fan base for baseball in Washington, there
are only two reasons why people will go to see the Nationals on a continuing basis starting in about July of this year and then in the coming years:
1. The team is really good and is a contender to win the World Series
2. The games themselves become "social status events" where it becomes advantageous for people to be seen at the game because it means they are "of
the proper social status".
If you don't live in the DC area, it might be difficult for you to understand how important both of those conditions are to the fabric of this area.
This is a political town; losers go home. There is nothing good that comes from being identified with losers. So, it behooves the Nationals to be
This is a political town where who you know is critically important and what parties you get invited to is an indication of your rank on the social
ladder. Certain events attain social status and people go there not to see the event but to be seen at the event. This has been the status of the
Washington Redskins' games for at least 2 decades now and maybe for the last 35 years since Vince Lombardi came to town.
For the home opener, the Nationals had that aura of "status" around them. Tickets were sold out immediately upon availability; there were more VIPs in
attendance than at anything short of a State of the Union Address. The Washington Post had that game as a front-page story AND then devoted eight
additional full pages in the sports section to the game and the ceremony surrounding the game. And like it says in the song:
"Where seldom is heard, a discouraging word..."
You would never have imagined that anything was less than perfect on that evening if that is all you read and all you did was to tune into the local
newscasts. Those local talking heads were so deep in the tank for this event that still photos of them almost looked like modern versions of The
Adoration of the Magi.
There were more than 45,000 folks there for that game. Obviously, the Nationals aren't going to draw those kinds of crowds every day; you have to
expect a drop-off. But the crowds for the next two games averaged only 33,000; that's more than a 25% drop and that means that there were tons of
empty seats for the second home game of this incarnation of the Washington Nationals. I know, you can still say that's a really nice crowd; and if you
can get that every night you'll draw over 2.5 million fans and that's good for any team - especially one that has been playing to crowds of 5,000 or
less on more than a few occasions for the last 10 years.
But the Nationals aren't going to draw 33,000 per game this year - this inaugural year I might remind you - unless they are within a few games of the
playoffs for the entire season. Yesterday, they played to a crowd of less than 26,000. They've been home for a week and the crowd is down about 40%.
And let me tell you some of the reasons behind my reality-based observations that you won't read in anything that the baseball poets write.
RFK Stadium is a dreadful place to watch a baseball game - or any other sporting event for that matter. It is old and decrepit and in not such great
repair. I don't want to exaggerate here, but it is in a bad neighborhood. It is not the worst part of town and it is not the Black Hole of Calcutta,
but this is not a prestigious address to borrow a phrase from the real estate moguls. Across the parking lot is the local hoosegow and none of those
VIPs who were at the opening game and smiling broadly for the cameras and patting themselves on the back for being part of this great "event" lives
anywhere near that stadium. The parking and road access to the stadium are OK, but nothing more than that; and if you don't park in the lots, this is
not a good area to be wandering around at night looking for your car. Oh yeah, you may indeed spend some time doing just that - - looking for your
Yes, the baseball poets are right; there is indeed a Metro stop nearby RFK stadium - just as there will be one nearby the planned new stadium. That
should resolve things. Except if you don't live in the DC area, you cannot appreciate the lunkheadedness of the people who run Metro. After the
opening night game, there were lines a block long at the nearby Metro station that patrons said took two hours to traverse (I wasn't there so I don't
know if that is an exaggeration or not). The Metro spokesthing never thought to apologize for this or to say that they would do something about it in
the future. No, the official Metro response from spokesthing, Lisa Farbstein, was that there were 17 trains each of which had 8 cars that went through
the station after the game and Metro was not planning to add any capacity. Before you ask, yes, the Metro folks continually ponder why people are not
fully enthralled with Metro customer service...
Up until the day of the opening game, it was not 100% certain that there would be Metro service after the game. You see, in Washington DC, the Metro
trains do not run after a certain hour and if the game had gone deep into extra innings, people might have left after the last train had left the
station – presumably without the block long lines. And Metro said it wasn't going to run trains later than normal unless the team found a way to pay
for the added service at the rate of tens of thousands of dollars per hour. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the community spirit and élan that
underlies the dedication to bring baseball back to DC and keep it here.
Where were the local politicos who took credit for all this during this transportation mess? Let's just say they were not orating and emoting about
the need to make this work to nearly the same degree they orated and emoted about the glories of baseball in DC.
Now, about that new stadium, which will indeed give the Nationals another bump in popularity if - notice I said "if" and not "when" - it gets built.
It was about 4 months ago when MLB put the Nationals here in DC and we went through the political machinations over funding a stadium and all that.
The money has not yet been borrowed and there are still political maneuverings going on related to the new stadium funding. They have chosen a stadium
architect who is off on a tangent already worrying about the "theme" of the structure and the "statement" it should make. He wants to use a lot of
glass to symbolize "the transparency of democracy". Here's what he needs to do. He needs to build a stadium that has easy access for fans and good
sight lines and spacious accommodations for things like eating and parking and relieving oneself.
The "statement" the stadium should make is this: This is a comfortable place to watch a ball game at a reasonable cost!
I am confident that the stadium that was “proposed” to the MLB owners will never be built in terms of it being "state of the art" and "a
destination". I'm not 100% confident that any new stadium will ever be built but I am certain that if something new is built it will not be ready
within the two-year window that was proposed to the MLB owners. And without a new stadium that is at least as nice as Camden Yards, the Washington
Nationals cannot survive in this town and the franchise will die. Around here, that's called being left "twisting in the wind" in the parlance of
former Watergate figure John Ehrlichman.
The hyperbole fever from the baseball poets has spread already into the Nationals' clubhouse. Manager Frank Robinson complained earlier this week that
the Nationals were not getting sufficient coverage on ESPN SportsCenter. Excuse me? Every time I look in, there is something about the Nationals and
their new home and their stupid new mascot. They may not be given the time and exposure of the Yankees or the Red Sox, but they get more time on the
air than the Los Angeles Dodgers and - as of this morning - the Dodgers have the best record in the major leagues.
Memo to Frank Robinson:
1. Your team has gotten far more coverage everywhere than its accomplishments on the field have earned.
2. Ask yourself how fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates must feel if you think your team has been ignored.
3. The Nationals are only interesting now because of their novelty so they will get less coverage come June - unless you keep them hot in the pennant
race. Deal with it.
4. Attendance is heading down - never to get all the way down to the "Montreal level" to be sure - but only the guys in your clubhouse can do anything
to stop that. Don't look to the media and the baseball poets for someone to blame when you are playing to crowds of 15,000.
But don't get me wrong, I love sports...
Copyright The sports Curmudgeon