Nats Are in Danger of Losing More Than Just Games

It's been a down year for the Nats and team president Stan Kasten. Washington averaged 29,005 fans, the lowest first-season attendance for any new park since 1991.
It's been a down year for the Nats and team president Stan Kasten. Washington averaged 29,005 fans, the lowest first-season attendance for any new park since 1991. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Thomas Boswell
Friday, September 26, 2008

It's hard to lose 100 games. The St. Louis Cardinals haven't done it since 1908. The lousy Montreal Expos, after their initial expansion season, only did it once in their remaining 35 years in Canada. Even the legendarily bad Senators of "Damn Yankees" infamy only lost 100 games twice between 1909 and their escape to Minnesota in 1961.

So the current Nationals, especially their ownership and executives, should look straight in the mirror as they head to Philly for three final games, sitting on 99 losses.

Their flop this season, in a new publicly funded park, is a disgrace that could have been avoided. The franchise took a gamble on fielding a low-budget team, a choice that, in retrospect, seems like a combination of bad faith and worse judgment. This was a year that did so much damage to the relationship between the Nationals and their fans -- both current and potential -- that it simply cannot be repeated.

Injuries? The Nats started at least six different players at every infield position. Few teams have ever been hurt more. Chaos was their norm. But hold the excuses for somebody else. Does a cheap suit unravel?

From '77 until they left Montreal, the Expos never had a 100-loss season. Do you think they might have had some seasons when players got hurt? But they never utterly imploded. They never fielded a team, like these Nats, with neither a 15-homer hitter, nor a player with more than 60 RBI or more than 10 wins. Even the threadbare team that arrived here, depleted in the minors, went 81-81 in '05.

No, the responsibility falls first on the oblivious everything's-going-great Lerner family who mistakenly think they understand the game as much as they love it. Next come President Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden, who seem too timid to pound on ownership's door, put their security on the line and tell truth to power: The Nats' product stinks. The public, now staying away in eloquent droves, is correct to repudiate it. And if the team, with its vastly increased revenues in Nationals Park, doesn't open its wallet to help fix the problem, then the team will get what it deserves next year: a beautiful half-empty park and a fan base that must be resurrected from nil.

Right now, like every team that spends the final week vying for the worst record in the sport, the Nats have their share of bone-deep disappointment and internal fussing. Hopes on Opening Day were so high and pride so brimful that such a rapid fall, as well as the criticism that comes with it, is doubly galling.

On that first night, Kasten and Mark Lerner could barely keep their eyes open from lack of sleep for weeks. Few did more to create "on time and on budget" for a park that probably will make Washington proud for decades after the current unpleasantness is past.

But make no mistake, if the Nats aren't honest with themselves, if they swallow their internal pabulum and believe that their decent but unspectacular farm system will solve their problems quickly, it may take years to regain the interest and support of a town that, in four seasons, has gone from pennant-race pandemonium at RFK to empty seats and bush-league losses in a $611 million penthouse.

Because Washington had no team for 33 seasons, there is a local obsession with evaluating how well the town will support a team -- especially a bad team -- since two lousy Senator teams left town. The same fact -- the Nats' average attendance of 29,005 -- can lead to opposite conclusions.

First, that is the lowest inaugural-season attendance in any of the 18 parks built since the White Sox opened Comiskey Park II in '91. The two teams with most similar new-park attendance were Cincinnati in '03 (29,077) and Pittsburgh in '01 (30,742).

So what happened to those teams? In both cases, they reverted to the same attendance they had in their old parks. In the five years before and the five years after the Great American Ball Park opened, the Reds drew a bit more than 25,000 a game. In Pittsburgh, the Pirates averaged 20,387 in the four years before PNC Park and 21,269 in the seven seasons after the inaugural year. If the same is true here, the Nats may fall to their '06-'07 average in RFK: 25,278. Dreary, but no worse than Texas, Baltimore or Cincinnati.

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