By Thomas Boswell
Friday, March 3, 2006
VIERA, Fla. One year ago, just minutes before the first spring training pitch by a Washington baseball team in 34 years, the cars on the road to Space Coast Stadium stretched to the horizon. Fans, many from Washington, jammed the little park for a historic moment, full of joy, anticipation and also mystery. Would the ex-Expos be respectable or lose 100 games? Would Washington respond with the hoped-for crowds of 30,000 in makeshift old RFK Stadium? Or some disastrously lower number?
A song, "We Are the Washington Nationals," blared on the PA system as the Nats dashed on the field to an ovation, flashbulbs and a national TV crew. After a third-of-a-century wait, I wasn't very excited. But then I'd never taken two valiums before either.
This year, at the same moment, the road to Space Coast was bereft of vehicles. At the first pitch, the stands were three-quarters empty for a Nats exhibition game against the Pirates. The previous day, for a pre-exhibition game against a Korean touring team, attendance was 491. On this exquisite 80-degree day with a soft breeze, the lines at the hot-dog stands were one deep and none across. Pick a vendor, any vendor. The Nats took the field to a few polite cheers. I needed caffeine to focus.
Last year's game was unique, a special event. This spring is normal, mundane, with lineups half-filled with unknown players. "The newness wore off," Manager Frank Robinson said. "What did you expect?"
You'd have to be insensate as a commissioner to miss the point. How many of the empty seats here Thursday afternoon were a mirror image of the vacuum in the hearts of first-year Nats fans. After a horrid offseason of bad-faith betrayal by baseball's brass and the District's politicians, they feel like they've been kicked in the guts. Last spring, fans flew down from Washington to hang over the fence to talk to pitchers in the bullpen. Chad Cordero called them "awesome" that day, then sprinted into the game and fanned the side. This week, no fans have chatted up the bullpen. Against the Koreans, the 47-save Cordero, the symbol of the Nats' thrilling first season, gave up four runs in one-third of an inning. "It was ugly," said one Nats official.
The omen, the message, almost the prophecy in the scene here this week is unmistakably clear. If baseball and the District do not reach an agreement, presumably by next Tuesday, on a lease for a new stadium, what will the ramifications be for the long-term relationship between the Nationals and the city that fell in love with them last season? If MLB and D.C. go to an arbitration battle over tens of millions in damages -- which would take months -- what will happen to attendance at RFK this season?
And, if disillusionment grows, what will happen to the value of a franchise that drew 2.73 million fans last season? Now, it's worth $450 million to eight different bidders, all lined up begging. What will it be worth, and who will still want it, if baseball's stubborn brass and D.C.'s feuding council manage to contaminate Washington's nascent baseball love affair?
"It's our job to play and we'll play," said one National who asked to be anonymous. "What bothers me is that it's not fair to our fans not to know if the team is going to be there in two years. Last year, the whole organization was hamstrung. I pity the guys who were in Montreal. They go from playing in front of 7,000 people to 34,000 a game. Think how great that felt to them. They don't need to go through that again. If it doesn't get worked out, it's going to be sad."
Perhaps the powerful demographics of the Washington area and the goodwill inspired by last year's wild-card chase will inoculate the Nats, at least for one season, against all of the sins perpetrated against the franchise. Maybe the sport's cheapskate, third-class citizen treatment of the Nationals -- exemplified by a horrid TV deal, a bottom-third-of-baseball payroll and egregious rookie-league-level facilities for the players at RFK -- won't demoralize the club so that it collapses on the field.
And perhaps all these constant strains will not destroy the working relationship between team president Tony Taveras, General Manager Jim Bowden and Robinson. Though friction is starting to show. Tavares and Robinson have been oil and water since their Montreal days. This week, after Brian Lawrence was lost for the season to shoulder surgery, Robinson annoyed Bowden by saying, "We chose not to give him an MRI [before trading for him]. That's our bad. I would think that would be something to get our attention for the future at least. Why not? But I don't make the policy around here."
Maybe, maybe, maybe all the depletions to the pitching staff -- Esteban Loaiza, Hector Carrasco and now Lawrence -- will be overcome by the arrival of live-arm Ramon Ortiz (who threw a strong three innings against the Bucs) and Pedro Astacio. And perhaps a few wins in April will smooth Robinson's ruffled feathers after losing several of his longtime coaches, as well as two of his favorite, hard-nosed, clubhouse- chemistry players from Montreal (Brad Wilkerson and Jamie Carroll). Or not.
But who, in their right mind, would want to make such bets if they can be avoided? Especially because, as presently constituted, the pitching-poor Nats are just one injury to staff ace Livan Hernandez (who reported overweight) away from being a bad team.
For a century in the movies, Hollywood's standard plot was boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-finds-girl again. In reality, a script that starts, "town-finds-baseball, baseball-loses-town" usually ends up with "baseball doesn't get town back."
As MLB and the District juggle the future of baseball in Washington, they should watch which way the wind is blowing. As of Thursday, season ticket sales, though improving slightly, were still down about 15 percent from last year. Part of that stems from MLB's lack of offseason marketing. (Why spend money when you're trying to punish a town and its politicians?)
"Now, with all the things that are going on with the new stadium, a new owner, even the name of the team, I don't try to keep up to date anymore. It takes way too much energy. 'Give me a call when it happens,' " said Nats executive Bob Boone. "Besides, if they don't work these things out, it's so negative you can't even imagine it."
As soon as next week, "so negative you can't even imagine it" may arrive. Many, including Sigmund Freud, believed that unhappiness was a kind of default condition for humans because it takes little effort to be unhappy. Happiness, on the other hand, almost always requires hard work -- in many forms. Thus, optimism becomes, at times, a willed act of stubbornness.
In just a few days, happiness may alight on the shoulders of this team and its followers like some baseball gift, delayed more than a generation in its arrival. But how often does the real world work that way? After all, have we really suffered enough?
Ladies and gentlemen, don't let the warm kindly breezes here trick you. It's crunch time. Get ready to clench your jaws.