Nats Are in Danger of Losing More Than Just Games

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.

However, there's another perspective. Few teams that lose more than 100, as the Nats may, draw flies, regardless of the park. Of all teams with 100-plus loses, the Nats would have the second-highest attendance, slightly behind the '04 D-backs (who'd won the 2001 World Series and had a fan base).

The most important aspect of attendance in a new ballpark is often the most overlooked. Kasten probably is right when he says, "If we win, they'll come." Milwaukee and Detroit built parks less attractive than D.C. and saw attendance plummet fast to 20,992 and 17,103, respectively. Conclusion: building new parks was a terrible idea.

In reality, it was bad teams, not the parks that drove away the fans. The clubs kept improving their venues and their teams. This year, Detroit averaged 39,553 and Milwaukee 37,580.

If the Nats want to fix their problems, they probably just need to fix their team. Luckily, the Nats aren't as far from respectability, and a place in the good graces of the town, as most bad teams are. With normal health, plus a left-handed power hitter and a solid starter, the Nats might be a 75-win-plus team.

Few men understand better than Kasten how a drastic improvement at just one or two spots, plus the emergence of young farm hands, can transform a team in a year.

On Wednesday evening, Kasten stood by the batting cage as Marlins coach Jim Presley said, "How's it going?"

A simple question, but weighty. "I'm all right. I've been here before," Kasten said wearily. "You were there."

That would be back in '90, when Presley hit .242 as the third baseman for the last-place Braves. The next year, in a middling trade, Atlanta got Terry Pendleton to replace Presley. Pendleton was NL MVP in '91 and the Braves went to the World Series. If anything, teams in recent years, like the '07 Rockies and '08 Rays, morph even faster.

"This year was really disappointing on the field. But we feel elation about the ballpark itself. Big picture, we're as confident and optimistic as ever," Kasten said. "On phase one -- building up an infrastructure in the minor leagues and in [Nationals Park] -- I'm ready to declare it a success.

"We've set the foundation. But what fans see is the tip of the iceberg. They don't see the 200 players below sea level [in the minors] where we're really strong," Kasten added. "Next year, we need to improve the product here."

That's for sure.

"I'd just like to have our whole roster on the field at one time," Kasten said, not hiding the bitterness. "Our fans want better. But we want to be better more than anybody."

But what if the Nats don't spend, don't sign their top draft pick as they didn't this summer and don't get better? If the team stays bad, if the pattern of low payrolls despite higher revenues persists, would Kasten eventually consider an offer to run some other team?

"What an unfair hypothetical question," he blurts out, face flushed. "God, what do you think I'm doing here? My goal in life is to make this team a champion."

Not much about the Nats is certain. But Kasten's competence is. Commissioner Bud Selig, with barely disguised matchmaking, set him up here to do a job for the Lerners and Washington, a task that may flounder if '09 mimics '08. Failure, especially 100 loses in a new park, breeds more failure.

When the history of baseball is written, only one person in the Nats organization will be mentioned -- the sarcastic, driven Kasten who once oversaw a true dynasty. Mr. Nice Guy, he's not. But of all the Nats' reevaluations this winter, the authority of the team president -- or lack of it -- may be the most vital element.

If Kasten's voice isn't heard, if his proposals are not supported financially, the credibility of baseball in Washington will fall so low that this dismal season will look like the good old days.

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