February 4, 2006

Playing the Expectations Game

Watson's review of the Bon Jovi concert got me thinking about the nature of fan expectations. The concert, which I enjoyed, was widely declared subpar by local media outlets (or at least DC101 and the guys in my office.) The criticism could be grouped into two camps: A) they played too much new stuff and neglected the fan favorites; or B) they just didn't seem to put 100% effort into the show. Whether or not these are fair criticisms of Thursday night's concert, they are emblematic of two quick routes to losing a fanbase: fostering unrealistic expectations, or failing to meet realistic ones. I think the Nationals are guilty of both.

Fostering unrealistic expectations is tough to avoid, because it is a natural by-product of the intersection of success and fandom. Having seen excellence once, fans naturally conclude that success is a reasonable outcome, and expect to see it again. Returning to the concert comparison, Bon Jovi is simultaneously blessed and saddled with an iconic body of work from the 1980s. Most fans would be happy if the band never played anything produced in the 21st century. But they have a new album out, with songs they're probably every bit as proud of as
Slippery When Wet. So it's unrealistic to think they won't promote their new work, and frankly, they're probably sick to death of playing Livin' on a Prayer anyway.

The Nats improbable run to the top of the NL East last season engendered what ex-Fed chair Alan Greenspan might have labelled irrational exuberence in Nats fans, skewing our view of the team. Our opinions of players became inextricably linked to memories of clutch performances and 1-run victories. Nats fans look at Jamey Carroll and see heart, hustle and unselfish play. The rest of the league sees a AAAA utility infielder. If Rick Short really had the potential we wanted him to have, some major league team would have offered him a contract before he left for Japan. Even Brad Wilkerson, a solid everyday player, was undeniably ill-suited for the leadoff role the Nationals needed him to play.

Falling short of legitimate expectations is a much more damning sin. It implicitly demeans your fans, suggesting that they have nothing better to do than pay to watch your half-assed performance. And while that may not be a fatal blow to an established organization, it is near-suicidal for a franchise with tenuous ties to even its most ardent supporters. I don't think Nats fans really expect the team to compete for the NL East crown in 2006. They'd probably even accept a little regression with good grace. But the Nats offseason under Jim Bowden provides no roadmap for future success, and no plan more sophisticated than digging an infinite number of holes in the blind hope of striking oil.

No matter how bone weary Bon Jovi is of
I'll Be There For You, if they're going to charge people to hear it they need to put out 100% effort. And since the Nationals most assuredly are charging for the 2oo6 season, somone in the front office owes us a reason to watch apart from morbid curiousity.


Watson said...

It's rather ironic that Nate posted this tonight as I resolved when I got home to post a re-review of the Bon-Jovi concert. It's now 2:10am and after two full days spent with the new Bon-Jovi album and a couple of beers I have come to the conclusion that I misjudged the boys from Jersey. The new album is actually quite strong. It echoes with a longing for days gone by that feels eerily at home with this fan. The tracks "I Want To Be Loved" and "Last Man Standing" are particulary excellent. Seeing as I wasn't familar with this when they played live I was disappointed. In restrospect I judged prematurely. The band certainly gave heart and soul to their new material, even if they slightly neglected their old. God willing the 2006 Nats will put as much into their product.

Nate said...

Does the new album have the live version of Every Rose Has Its Thorn? ;-)