By Thomas Boswell
Friday, February 22, 2008
For the last week, pitchers, catchers and perpetrators have reported to spring training.
In the past, these first innocent weeks of baseball have been my favorite slice of the season. Everything about the game is fresh and renewed by hope. This year the anticipation was stronger than ever with the opening of Nationals Park. After three years in the old RFK dungeon, baseball would finally come back to town in style.
But nothing, not even a pleasure so long delayed, can be that simple.
All winter, and especially in recent days, Washington has experienced in concentrated doses the same bitter dilemma that baseball has endured from coast to coast. At the time of year when the sport is usually praised rhapsodically, the game is getting righteously pummeled with daily onslaughts of embarrassing headlines and abject apologies from its infamous players.
Just weeks before the Nats open a publicly funded park, they are tied to a sport that must constantly defend its reputation. As they try to sell tickets in a recession-endangered economy, the Nats find baseball's steroid problems landing with a thud on their doorstep. With season ticket sales projected to be up a modest 20 percent from last year to about 18,000 by Opening Day -- a decent gain but far from exciting in a new $611 million playpen -- the Nats epitomize this anxiety-laden baseball spring.
"It's a dichotomy," says Nats President Stan Kasten. "The media is justified in covering the controversies. But the evidence says the fans focus on the game. The sport has never had such numbers. Everything is up. It's a new golden age of interest."
How well can the Nationals capitalize on it? Hardly a day passes when scandals and scoundrels don't grab attention.
Last week, Roger Clemens testified to Congress just walking distance from the new park. Clemens left with his reputation in shreds and perjury charges perhaps in his future. On the sworn statement scoreboard, it was several of "them" against one of "him." Since then, the drumbeat of blows to baseball's head has continued. The Yanks' Andy Pettitte, the Nats' Paul Lo Duca and the Orioles' Brian Roberts have reported to spring training not to field grounders but to field questions. Day after day their apologies arrive, in veiled terms to deflect legal jeopardy.
"I never want a young person to do what I did. I was stupid. Was I desperate? Yes, I probably was," said Pettitte, whose sworn statement implicated Clemens in the use of human growth hormone. Few players idolized a teammate as Pettitte did Clemens. "This has been a horrible situation," Pettitte said, probably referring more to rolling on Clemens than 'fessing himself.
These abject scenes of shame have played out across the game. "You make bad decisions, you pay whatever price there is," said Roberts, perhaps the most popular Oriole. "I don't know that anybody wants to air their dirty laundry for 50 million people. . . . I've lived with that mistake for a long time, but it didn't necessarily mean I wanted to tell everybody about it."
"I have no excuses. I blame myself. I took a shortcut," said Baltimore slugger Jay Gibbons, one of a mortifyingly long list of present and former Orioles who were named in the Mitchell report. Miguel Tejada, on arriving in the Astros' camp this week, refused to answer any Mitchell report-related questions.
The Nationals, looking for a glistening start in their new digs, have been one of the game's more embarrassed teams, signing Lo Duca three days before the Mitchell report charged that he'd not only bought illegal performance-enhancing drugs for himself but referred former teammates to dealer Kirk J. Radomski.
Though purposefully vague in his remarks, Lo Duca at least stood up straight last Saturday, requesting neither cigarette nor blindfold. "You do something wrong in your life, and you get away with it, you still have something inside you that burns," Lo Duca said. "It's been a big relief for me to know I've come to grips with it -- that I made a mistake."
Baseball fans in general, but Nats fans especially, have probably never had such conflicted feelings at the start of a season, particularly because much of the District's Southeast urban renewal effort operates with the new park near its hub. No civic purpose is served by getting indignant at baseball (again) at the moment when the sport may finally provide some social utility. So attendance at the new park will be under a microscope.
"It looks like season ticket [equivalents] will be at 18,000 by Opening Day," Kasten said yesterday. "We're still selling strongly. That will put us in the top half in baseball for season tickets -- 10th to 15th."
Nevertheless, some Nats executives had privately hoped for a season ticket base of more than 20,000, edging into the sport's top 10. But a variety of factors, including the overhang of the steroid scandal, has produced an odd statistic in ticket sales. The Nats are selling more 20-game ticket packages than they expected, but fewer full-season 81-game packages.
"Why the strong appeal of 20-game packages? Is it the economy? Is it because we're a growing team? Is it changes in the lobbying laws? I don't know," Kasten said. "We'll get the attendance we deserve. It's our job to attract them."
The latest wave of scandals has rocked baseball at a time when the sport was in booming health and could withstand the shock. A whole generation of Glamorous Ballpark Construction is reaching its crescendo with new Taj Mahal parks being built for the megabucks Yankees and Mets. Even the Twins have a new home coming. "The sport has transitioned to a different model," Kasten said. "You don't 'go to a game' anymore. You have a four-hour entertainment experience."
At the moment, no baseball franchise is at a more delicate point in its history than Washington's. The last thing the Nats needed was to spend the last 10 weeks selling tickets to a new park into the teeth of a slowing economy, a credit crunch, the Mitchell report and latest show-trial hearings on the Hill. But that's the hand they were dealt.
Kasten claims not to care. To him, winning -- and nothing else -- solves every problem. "I'm going to cross my fingers as I say this. Everybody here from the front office to the coaches is just raving about the depth of talent we've got this year compared to last season," Kasten said. "Just imagine if we have a healthy [pitching ace] John Patterson. All of a sudden you are talking about us in the [pennant] race with everybody else.
"It's a heady thing to think about."
And, for this prediction of enhanced performance, Kasten didn't even apologize.