“Just say no,” Monk pleaded.
Eight years later — after the council anguished over the stadium deal and finally approved it, after angry voters threw out three council members who had pushed for the deal, after the Expos became the Washington Nationals
, and after Nationals Park became home to a team that fell right into the Washington Senators’ historic cellar-dwelling role — Monk has a wholly different view of baseball.
“I have to say, it’s been for the betterment of the community,” she said. “Our crime seems to be under control. The neighborhood looks 100 percent better. The new housing is a great improvement.”
As the Nationals begin their eighth season this week, the team is poised to contend for a playoff berth for the first time. From pitching star Stephen Strasburg to teen hitting prospect Bryce Harper and a player development system that some baseball observers have ranked best in the sport, the Nats finally look like a winner on the field.
It’s taken longer than expected, but if the team and the area around Nationals Park blossom this year, that would be good news for those who believed baseball’s return would pay off for Washington.
The road to this spring has been a checkered one. Some fans drifted away during an extended period in which the franchise’s owners, the Lerner family of suburban mall developers, seemed complacent about the team’s miserable performance. With attendance declining or flat every year except for the new stadium’s inaugural season in 2008, questions arose about the viability of baseball in a market that lost the Senators twice and went without the sport for 33 years.
“The attendance hasn’t done as well as we had expected,” said John Ross, director of the District’s office of economic development finance. A consulting firm the city hired projected that the Nats would draw more than 3 million fans a year once the new stadium opened. That has not happened; rather, attendance has fallen short of 2 million in the past three seasons, according to Major League Baseball data.
“Some of that had to do with wins and losses — fewer wins means fewer fans,” Ross said, “and some of it was that the Nats have been building a fan base and that takes time.”
“They lost, they lost badly and they lost boring,” said Steven Biel, a 36-year-old fan who writes a Nationals blog, FJB. (The acronym came from Biel’s “Fire Jim Bowden” campaign against the team’s former general manager.) “We don’t know yet how this market would react to a baseball team, because they haven’t played baseball until now.”