And in the stands will be: Who, exactly?
The Washington debut of the Strasburg-Harper duo could scarcely come at a more interesting time. In town will be the Philadelphia Phillies, who not only have won the Nationals’ division for the past five seasons, but whose fans have made it a habit of invading Nationals Park, making it Philly South.
This weekend, though, the Nationals are in first place and trying to reclaim their own territory. The series is being played under a “Take Back the Park” marketing campaign started by the Nationals with aims at actively keeping out Phillies fans. District Mayor Vincent Gray declared this to be “Natitude Weekend” in Washington, playing off the club’s slogan for the year. On Sunday night, the Nationals will appear on ESPN’s marquee “Sunday Night Baseball” for the first time since the opening night of Nationals Park in 2008.
“I’ve said it before,” Nationals chief operating officer Andrew Feffer said. “I think this is an important moment for our franchise.”
The Washington sports market has long been dominated by the Redskins, who last week drafted quarterback Robert Griffin III and made him an instant celebrity in town. But the quick arrival of Harper, the No. 1 overall choice in the 2010 draft, to join Strasburg, the top overall pick the previous year, would seem to give the Nationals an opportunity to finally create a little buzz of their own.
Yet Tuesday, in Harper’s first game in Washington, 22,675 fans came to 41,000-seat Nationals Park. The following night, with hockey’s Capitals hosting a playoff game less than 21
2 miles away at Verizon Center, only 16,274 fans watched Harper rip three hits in a win over Arizona. When Strasburg made his first home start of 2012, 16,245 came to see it — more than 5,000 fewer than had witnessed any of his previous home starts.
Attendance at Thursday night’s game against Arizona was 19,656.
Feffer cites a well-worn list of obstacles to selling mid-week tickets early in a baseball season: iffy weather, school still in session, more competition from other sports. And the club still leans on the fact that it is still, relatively, a nascent entity. The Phillies have played, uninterrupted, in Philadelphia since 1883. The Nationals relocated from Montreal in 2005, becoming the District’s first baseball team in 34 years.
“There’s a whole generation that missed baseball for 30 years,” Feffer said. “It’s still a start-up. The biggest challenge, and probably the greatest opportunity, is building the fan base from the ground up. That takes time.”