The Washington Nationals had collected nearly 15,000 deposits for season tickets yesterday, the last day when those fans who had registered early with the team had the right to receive preferential seating. The strong opening week of sales is the first indication that while Major League Baseball's intention to return to the District is fraught with political hold-ups and other potential problems, the team, should it arrive as scheduled in April, will almost certainly be more financially stable than it was in its final few seasons as the Montreal Expos.
"We're delighted," Nationals President Tony Tavares said. "We've still got more work to do -- much more work -- but it's been a good week."
With only full, 81-game season ticket packages on sale thus far -- partial plans likely will be available after Jan. 1, with single-game tickets on sale in February -- the Nationals' complete financial picture is far from clear. Therefore, Tavares said the solid start to season ticket sales won't immediately translate into more money to spend on players.
"We can't project out that far," Tavares said. "But even if we brought back [all the players] we had last year, we'd still have some money to spend, and we're going to spend it."
The Nationals, owned by the other 29 major league teams, are up for sale, but the transaction almost certainly won't be completed before Opening Day. The team's budget will be around $50 million, sources said, nearly 20 percent more than it was in Montreal. But a week's worth of sales, Tavares said, isn't going to send interim general manager Jim Bowden on a spending spree. Tavares said he projected the team to sell 20,000 season tickets and average 30,000 fans per game -- more than triple the Expos' average of 9,356 last year.
"Everybody tells me I'm low," Tavares said.
Regardless of the increased revenue stream, Bowden is still under constraints. After adding third baseman Vinny Castilla, shortstop Cristian Guzman and outfielder Jose Guillen last week, he is shopping for pitching. "That's the next priority," Bowden said.
Though the top-shelf starters won't be in the Nationals' price range regardless of how many tickets are sold, Bowden has begun to feel out what the next tier of starters will be worth. That group includes players such as Eric Milton and Kevin Millwood of Philadelphia and Atlanta's Jaret Wright.
Bowden expects the market to develop slowly, with most signings to take place no earlier than the winter meetings, which begin Dec. 10 in Anaheim, Calif.
"We've got the kind of money to go out and get that type of pitcher," Tavares said. "If we got that, I'd feel pretty competitive."
Many of the fans who have put down their $300 deposits for season tickets are interested not only in who they'll be watching play, but where they'll be sitting. The final seating configuration for baseball at RFK Stadium isn't complete. And some fans have concerns about the priority in which they'll be slotted.
Barry Levine lived on Capitol Hill in the mid- to late-1980s, when a series of pitches to get baseball back to Washington was in full swing. Levine and a friend, Larry Seidel, put money down with a group, "Baseball in '87," in hopes of getting in on season tickets early. The money has been in an account -- labeled "Baseball Account" -- since.
"We preregistered for season tickets this time," Levine said. "But it occurred to us: Maybe we should get some priority now. We put this money down years ago, and I'd love to get some good seats because of our dedication."
Alas, Nats officials said that won't happen. "There's no way to verify it all," Tavares said. Thus, the people who registered their interest on the team's Web site prior to season tickets going on sale will be slotted into the best seats using a computer program, according to Kevin Uhlich, an assistant to Tavares. Tavares said a small number of seats will be reserved for the companies that have large sponsorship agreements with the team, but that there will be plenty of good seats for season ticket holders.
The team also has worked to make sure that all of those who pre-registered interest in season tickets are acknowledged as such so they can get preference in seating. Several complaints flowed in last week from fans who had registered but didn't receive an e-mail explaining how to put their deposits down. Some contacted this week said they had heard back from the club.
Nationals Note: Washington made a minor league deal yesterday, acquiring outfielder J.J. Davis from the Pittsburgh Pirates for Class A outfielder Antonio Sucre, 21. Davis, 26, was the eighth overall choice in the 1997 draft. He was on the Pirates' Opening Day roster last season, but has hit just .163 in 53 games in the majors.