Though I live just 150 miles from the city of Philadelphia, I have never been to a baseball game at Citizens Bank Park. And yet, I feel that I can say I have, because I attended Opening Day 2010 at Nationals Park. If the crowd was less than 70/30 Phillies fans I will eat my Replica BP Hat, hundreds of which probably ended up in trash cans immediately after being distributed to the Philly faithful. I'm not sure GEICO's going to be thrilled with that particular marketing expenditure.
The Phillies have a large and vocal fanbase (larger and more vocal since their recent run of success, but c'est la vie.) A good number of transplanted Pennsylvanians live in the DC metro area, and of course it's a relatively easy three hours down I-95 from the City of Brotherly Love itself. So it's not surprising that Philly baseball fans come to DC to take in a game. What rankles is when Washington fans feel like visitors, even interlopers, in their own park. From booing Ryan Zimmerman's awards presentations to serenading the visitors with nicknames and chants, the auditory experience of today's game was all Philly, all the time.
To quote the guy who threw out the first pitch, "Let me be clear." I don't blame the Philly fans. This is what they do. At home, on the road, on their couches, and for all I know, in their sleep. They're loud, boorish, not infrequently drunk, and at least as prone to pick fights with each other as with opposing fans. They've found a home away from home on South Capitol Street, and they treat it that way. The responsibility for the present state of affairs rests solely with the ownership and management of the Washington Nationals.
It was just last year when Stan Kasten went on the radio in Philly and all but begged the locals to turn our stadium into CBP-South. I'd say today's showing means it's Mission Accomplished. In the six seasons since baseball returned to Washington, DC I've been to every home opener and 100 more games besides. I was at two of the three games the Yankees played at RFK and the crowd there was much closer to 50/50. Maybe the Red Sox games were as lopsided, but hell, the Sox do that everywhere.
This was Opening Day. The game that was supposed to showcase Mike Rizzo's rebuilt, revitalized Nationals. I've seen a lot of embarrassing things on and off the field over six years of Nats fandom, but I was never embarrassed to be a fan of this franchise until today. I understand that Washington is a city of perpetual transplants, and local sporting events are always going to be forums for showcasing divided loyalties. I also accept that DC is a front-running town that loves to claim winners as its own. (I grew up here, I'm a big boy, I know the score.) But none of that provides an excuse for what I saw in the stands at Nationals Park today.
From a purely financial perspective, what matters is that tickets are sold, not who fills the seats, or even if the seats are filled. Ted and Mark Lerner and Stan Kasten can probably run a perennially profitable operation catering to transplants, tourists, visitors and everyone but DC baseball fans. Because those folks won't care that the right fielder is a light-hitting career utility man, or that the back half of the rotation is a cobbled together mess for the fifth year running. They won't notice that the farm system, for all the hype and blather about "building from the ground up", really hasn't produced anything all that remarkable. Why should the Philly fans of the world care that while the owner talks about spending money to compete, it never quite seems to happen? Those folks come to enjoy a nice stadium they didn't pay for and root for the visiting team to whip the Nats. More often than not, they leave happy, having deposited a few more dollars in Uncle Ted's alabaster piggy bank.
It's a system that works great, for everybody but the fans of the Washington Nationals. And if there are fewer of us every year, well, can you honestly be surprised? Half the time you can't find this organization with a compass and a map. They've buried a great radio team on a hit-and-miss AM signal. The TV rights are held hostage to an agreement that ought to be a case study on how not to negotiate a media contract. Advertising, to the extent that there is any, is mostly confined to these outlets. I'm not a marketing guy (I leave the flashy stuff to Dave) but it sure looks to me like the Nats are doing everything possible not to broaden their appeal to a wider audience, at least not if that audience is local.
I write this with no particular hope or expectation that things will change soon, or even at all. Lest you think that I'm simply a bitter crank, I'm happy to report that today on the banks of the Anacostia, the sun was warm, the beer (when available) was cold, and an afternoon at Nationals Park still beats a day at the office 100 times out of 100. But if we don't expect more, we certainly can't complain about never getting it...
UPDATE: Also, what he said. And Needham expands on why we're all probably just talking to ourselves. $2,000,000 buys a lot of ear plugs.