Monday, September 29, 2008

Season in New Park Ends Painfully

Yesterday the Nationals completed one of the most futile seasons in recent baseball history, on the field and off the field. In what ended up being the last home game, last Wednesday's loss to the Marlins drew 23,299, barely half of capacity. And the string of sellouts predicted by team president Stan Kasten never materialized; the lone sellout was opening night. Nationals Park hasn't seen 35,000+ attendance (about 85% full) since June 29 and ended up hosting 2,492,000 fans this year. They should have hit the 3 million mark in a new park, in this market. There are reasons they did not.

I can forgive head coach Manny Acta and some of the players for their performance. For the most part, they acted professionally and tried as hard as they could. Many were young and the original line up was destroyed by injuries. For sure there were plenty of unforced errors and mental lapses. There were too many bad and mediocre players to amount to much of anything. 100+ loses was foreseen by some, but not locally. We expected better. The Nationals fired 5 coaches last night, but they alone did not account for 102 loses.

I cannot let ownership off the hook. I was a season ticket holder this year, and the economy withstanding, I likely won't be next year. I think the owners need to fulfill some DC resident wish list items before getting the support everyone seems to think they deserve for just existing. We do pay attention not only to how well the team is performing, but in what regard the owners hold the paying customer, many of whom live in the District. Here's my two cents:

1. Pay rent. During a mortgage crisis, in a market where a decent one bedroom rental can approach $2,000, the millionaire owners of the Nationals are on a rent strike. They refuse to pay since the stadium wasn't substantially complete on opening day. The city contends that for all intents and purposes the stadium was delivered on time, March 30. The team even competed in a nationally televised, sold out, opening night, drama filled, presidentially attended, gem of a game that night. I was there! The owners still contend the stadium wasn't complete. I'll repeat my previous offer: If the stadium was "partially incomplete," I'd like a "partially incomplete " refund on each ticket I used this year.

2. Respectfully name the stadium. The team stands to make upwards of $5.0 million per year on naming rights, which they have yet to secure. (In relation, yearly ballpark rent is $3.5 million). Many teams sell naming rights. Its a legitimate revenue stream. However, the owners should name the stadium carefully. ExxonMobile field is not a place I want to see a game. Financial sector names (Deutsche Bank Field, PNC Stadium) seem less and less likely as this bank crisis unfolds. One possibility for RFK naming rights was Army Strong Stadium, or something like that. That didn't fly with DoD, I assume. There are a ton of possibilities, but please, for the love of baseball try to pick a company that's at least in neutral public regard.

3. Show goodwill when working with the City. I know working with DC government officials is hard. Even Fenty can drive a tough bargain, change his mind on an issue, or be stubborn. But when said hard headed entity has already spent more than $600,000,000 on your behalf (building the stadium), you should be jumping through all sorts of hoops for them. Even aside from the rent issue, the team has had a contentious relationship with the city regarding tickets/suites for the council, use of the stadium outside baseball season and infrastructure and enhancement responsibilities. When revenues are down at the park, the city sees less tax dollars. Its in the interest of both to be as efficient as possible when working together. The owners of the Nationals wouldn't have had a chance to even own a team if the city did agree to build a park for Major League Baseball.

4. Spend money to make money. Last place teams are most often at the bottom of payroll rankings. That's true of the Nationals. They ranked 26 our of 30 teams for payroll at $54,166,000 this year. On the flip side, the biggest spender, New York Yankees ($207,000,000) didn't make the playoffs either. We don't have to spend that much, as the Yankees have a dozen or so all-star caliber players. We only need to spend enough for one all star caliber player! One big batter, or one ace pitcher, would give us real baseball fans a reason to come to the park and give the team a reasonable chance to look respectable. No one is expecting a World Series appearance any time soon. But to not be at the absolute bottom of the standings would be nice.