By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
The e-mail popped in, and Chris Needham took a minute to digest it. The sender was easily identifiable: Stan Kasten is the president of the Washington Nationals, the baseball team about which Needham comments almost daily via his blog.
Needham had just published an entry titled "StanSpeak," in which he took the liberty of "translating" Kasten's words for the club's fan base, a smart-alecky but smart look at what the man who runs the club might really be thinking.
Needham opened the e-mail cautiously. He knows about this?
"I had suspicions that they read this stuff," Needham said. "But when a suspicion becomes a reality, it's surreal."
The surreal part might not be that team executives read and comment about sites such as Needham's "Capitol Punishment," but that nearly two dozen people -- some who grew up in the District, some who grew up in Omaha, some who are Web masters and some who are lawyers -- spend five or 10 or (gulp) 20 hours a week producing blogs devoted to the Nationals. The team has been in town for just two seasons. It has finished in last place both years. Yet the opinions and analyses flying in the "Natosphere," as the bloggers call it, are deeper and more diverse than for many clubs that have been around far longer.
"This was kind of a chance to get in on the ground floor as a baseball fan here," said Brandon Kriner, who authors the "Curly W" blog with a friend and co-worker. "It colors outside of the lines of the work" done by newspapers and television.
If the "Natosphere" is still developing, it's doing so at a rapid pace. There are sites that link to even the most minuscule news items involving current and former Nationals, such as "District of Baseball." There are sites that break down OBP and OPS and VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) with the precision and statistical acumen that would make devoted members of the Society for American Baseball Research proud, such as "Banks of the Anacostia." There are sites with impressively deep knowledge of the Nationals' minor league system ("Nationals Farm Authority"), sites whose authors attend Nationals events toting still and video cameras ("Just a Nats Fan"), sites that have taken to interviewing Kasten and other executives ("Nats320") and sites that debate the moves of General Manager Jim Bowden (pick one).
And lest any one of them think they are operating in a vacuum -- as Needham once did -- they are not.
"It's part of the world, as it has been for the past few years, and it's becoming part of our world," Kasten said. "It's one of the wonders of the Internet. You listen to [Washington Capitals owner and AOL executive] Ted Leonsis talk about it. It's the community you create. So anyone who is a fan, a customer, who finds additional ways to engage in your product, that's a good thing, even on those days that what they're saying isn't completely positive or, in some cases, accurate."
For the most part, the bloggers' feelings about each other are positive, even as some of their most spirited dialogue is on each other's work. Almost all of the 15 or so active Nationals blogs link to the others. They have interviewed each other. They comment on each other. They have even arranged meetings, including baseball-watching parties on the side of the garage of Cathy Taylor, a 34-year-old married mother of two who lives in Falls Church, works as a Web master in the District and operates the "Just a Nats Fan" blog under the name "Miss Chatter."
"It's a fairly close-knit community, to some degree," said Jeff Foust, whose blog is "District of Baseball." The group organized a tailgate on the last day of the 2006 season. "I could go up to somebody and say, 'Hi, I'm Jeff,' and they say, 'Oh, District of Baseball.' We know each other before we know each other."
And, as within any community, there have been arguments.
"There are starting to be factions now," said Kriner, of the "Curly W" site. "Some of the bloggers have really been taking this to another level, seeking out interviews with Stan Kasten and Jim Bowden. I think it represents something of a sea change for us. . . .
"My view is that everyone has a very different motivation for why they write. People seem to get upset when other people suggest that they are somehow doing things incorrectly. But this blogging thing is changing, and you have to be cognizant that you're publishing something that people can read and react to."
Needham, 28, who grew up in Upstate New York, works on Capitol Hill and lives in Alexandria, started "Capitol Punishment" shortly after the announcement in September 2004 that the Montreal Expos would move to Washington. The Expos, he said, were "kind of a great fog." He did a lot of writing for his job as an analyst, and he wanted an outlet to learn about the team, do some more creative writing and, as he said, "avoid boring my girlfriend to tears."
More than two years later, he said, "Capitol Punishment" receives a few hundred page views per day in the offseason, perhaps 700 a day when news is happening during the season. The objective isn't terribly high-minded -- "I'm not afraid of the quick, cheap one-liner," Needham said -- but it is almost always amusing and analytical, mixing statistics with personal takes on the team's moves to go along with top 10 lists, suggestions for holiday gifts for team members, whatever comes to mind.
"Absolutely hilarious," Kasten said.
Late last month, Kasten sent Needham another e-mail saying simply, "Call me." The blogger, phone-to-phone with the president, whose words he had made a hobby of parsing. "He's an honest broker," Needham said. "But I had no idea what he wanted. I want to make a few jokes at his expense and not change."
So Needham called. Kasten's beef: Needham wasn't on the list to renew his partial season ticket plan. So no, "StanSpeak" did not die.
"It's pretty amazing to be able to do these sorts of things, to develop your voice and have people react, especially the people who run the team," Needham said. "It'll be interesting to see how that continues or where it would develop."