This season, three large lessons were learned. Washington saw the best of baseball on the field at RFK. The sport, in turn, saw the best of this market at the turnstiles. Finally, and most important for a city about to build a $535 million ballpark, Washington saw the worst of baseball as a shameless business with monopoly status that has little regard for the public.
Now, all parties can make informed decisions. Truly, there's no substitute for firsthand experience.
The Nats' new fans, all 2.7 million of them, saw both an inspired pennant race and an exhausted collapse. Perhaps an 81-81 record was actually instructive. Over the decades, that's what any team would probably produce here. This year, the Nats beat the oddsmakers by 10 wins. But there'll be seasons they come up 10 wins shy. In the last 50 years, the Giants have a .517 winning percentage.
Baseball has also had the good luck to evaluate the Washington market under enthusiastic yet far from ideal conditions. While 34 years without a team provides pent-up demand, it also means the public has been disconnected from the sport for a third of a century. Traditional marketing should work well in an area where so many people, especially in Northern Virginia, have been underexposed to the product for so long. To date, the Nats' marketing has been an iota above nil.
While the Nats benefited from a honeymoon season, they also played in a 44-year-old stadium that is either appealingly authentic or so devoid of amenities only a hard-core fan would attend more than a few games. The Nats in RFK will never reach the marginal fan. So Washington finished 11th in attendance despite leaving its "baseball-as-total-experience" fan base untouched.
Finally, the Nats drew 33,728 fans per game despite the worst TV and radio coverage of any big league team since the invention of the cathode ray tube. During a 75-game span when the Nats were in the postseason race, about half the people in the Washington region were able to see only half the games on TV. The team's weak radio signal was an even worse insult. As for local TV and talk-radio coverage, it presumably will be better in the future because, so far, it could hardly be worse.
Normally, when baseball enters a market, it fears that first-season attendance may paint too rosy a picture. In Washington, the opposite may be true. "The Washington market is a sleeping giant. It's barely been tapped yet," said Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, a Catholic University grad who spent some of last week visiting old Washington haunts like Georgetown Prep. Cashman, whose New York contract runs out after the season, could land next season in Washington, Baltimore or Seattle.
So, Washington has gotten a baseball feast this season while the sport has watched the purchase price for the franchise rise from $325 million to $450 million. But perhaps the biggest winner, in a perverse way, has been the District and its council. They've gotten to see how baseball operates off the field. The last 12 months have been typical of the sport. Baseball didn't want to come to D.C., preferred Northern Virginia and didn't come to the city until the sport was promised a spectacular new park that wouldn't cost baseball one cent. When some D.C. Council members squawked, baseball's position was "a deal is a deal" and conceded nothing to D.C.
Next, in typical backroom fashion, baseball gave away the lion's share of the Nats' local television rights to Baltimore owner Peter Angelos as (take your pick) proper indemnification or a payoff to prevent a gigantic nuisance lawsuit. The Nats were promised market rates for their TV rights, but would get only scraps from Angelos's regional sports network. Oh, in 20 years, the Nats would get a third of MASN profits. But, for starters, try 10 percent.
As MASN and Comcast spent the summer fighting in court to see who would reign alone over the Baltimore-Washington cable sports gold mine, baseball made monthly vows that Nats fans would get normal TV coverage of their team. As is frequently the case, baseball's assurances were worthless. An insoluble problem? Bad luck? Incompetence? Or just stall tactics and lies?
Now we find that White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf has been pushing his friend and former Mariners owner, Jeff Smulyan, as the Nats buyer. Smulyan is not only an out-of-towner (Indianapolis) but he wants to buy the Nats with money from the communications company he founded rather than with his own cash. So, he's the worst of all worlds: an owner who was under-funded in Seattle, but now wants to buy a Washington franchise under a structure that makes the Nats just one of several profit (or loss) streams at a public company that has a fiduciary responsibility to please shareholders and Wall Street. In other words, in a real money crunch, the interests of the District and Nationals fans would hardly be at the top of the list.
Washington should have questions for baseball. When will an owner be named? Give us a date, not a song and dance. Some think baseball is in no rush whatsoever to name an owner. Why stop milking cash out of the Nats when you've already split up $35 million in profits this season? Why make the Nats a strong rival any sooner than absolutely necessary? Baseball owners hate competition. Why not hamstring the Nats with a low-ball budget and a skeleton front office as long as possible?
Baseball could hardly have treated the Nats and their fans more shabbily than it has already. And the team knows it.
"They keep promising us an owner. 'This problem, that problem' will go away then. But we don't get one," said one Nat. "Baseball's making millions, but we couldn't even afford all the [Sept. 1] call-ups we wanted," said another. A third added, "They're still hanging us out there just like they did in Montreal. This time, it's not just unfair to us, it's unfair to all these fans."
Washington has had its taste of baseball. The sport has seen Washington's financial potential. But the District has also seen the disregard for fans, the backroom deals and the in-your-face cronyism that has long contaminated the sport. In just one season, we already sense the best that we're getting in baseball the sport, but also the worst from baseball the business.
Any city that expects anything except self-serving and cynical treatment from the Lords of Baseball is living in denial. What we've seen so far is exactly what we'll continue to get. All decisions should be made in that context. Forewarned is forearmed.
There are now 2,731,993 reasons why Washington should never again go to baseball with its hat in its hand.