More important to the team’s long-term health, Washington itself, so often burned by baseball, so seldom loved (unless you count one World Series win in 1924 as sufficient recompense), has gradually fallen for a young team that is almost entirely homegrown.
Perhaps the team’s conspicuous camaraderie or the certainty that the club’s core players will stay intact for several years is part of the sudden romance. And that first-place thing helps a lot, too.
Here’s the average attendance progression for the Nats’ first four homestands: 24,712 to 27,589 to 30,852 to 32,955 last week. In part, it’s the warming weather. But by the time the Yankees sell out the joint three times next weekend, the Nats will have played 14 of their first 31 home games before crowds from 32,955 to 42,331.
Just as the Nats’ profile is skyrocketing, the argument between the Nationals and Peter Angelos’s MASN network over the value of Washington’s cable TV rights has met yet another delay. The sport’s revenue fairness committee has delayed giving its opinion of the fair market value of the Nats’ TV rights until July 1.
Talk about luck. The longer the haggling, the more likely the value of the Nats rights will jump. The 2012 payment is $29 million. The reset figure the Nats seek is $108 million per year for five seasons. Nats to MASN: Keep stalling, the price goes up.
A baseball team’s story isn’t a novel with just one plot twist. The Nats’ tale over the next several seasons will make your head swim; that’s almost a guarantee. Every chapter has its own twists. In this month’s installment, the Nats are getting healthier, with slugger Michael Morse back from the disabled list, just as they meet tough AL East foes in 15 straight games.
But the major news is not the outcome of the next few weeks or even this whole year. The change is much more basic. After baseball returned to D.C. in ’05, the franchise lost its way. Then, both leadership and luck improved. A rebuilt front office under Mike Rizzo learned to function, sometimes after plenty of arm-wrestling, with a Lerner family ownership that has proved itself capable of learning a new industry.
Also, good fortune in the amateur draft, plus willingness to spend, has changed the Nats narrative. It’s not just Strasburg and Harper. The pipeline includes half-a-dozen elite prospects. In another splash last week, the team took a shrewd gamble by picking a high-ceiling pitcher, Lucas Giolito, 17, with the 16th overall pick. Why did 15 teams pass on a 6-foot-6 pitcher who has touched 100 mph? Sore elbow, may be tough to sign. “No brainer,” Rizzo said.
What the cognoscenti at Fenway Park gushed over this weekend, Nats Park will display for years. All this good cheer guarantees nothing except that, from now on, the Nats will be watched intently here and nationally, too. Washington has joined the main characters on baseball’s stage for the first time since the 1930s.
True, it’s hardly an empty proscenium on which the Nats find themselves. They’re part of a crowd of Rangers and Dodgers, Cardinals and Rays, Yankees and Braves, perhaps 10 fine teams with obvious prospects, clubs that might do anything or not much.
But this was the week when many, and not just in Washington, began to suspect that a time may come — distant, perhaps, but not remote — when the Nats may actually stand alone on that big stage.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/