For Nationals prospect Bryce Harper, learning he would be promoted from low-Class A Hagerstown to Class AA Harrisburg must have been thrilling news. For the high-A Potomac Nationals in Woodbridge, it must have been a punch in the gut.
For the large, unincorporated area of Prince William County whose biggest attraction is still Potomac Mills mall, a brief visit from baseball’s No. 1 draft pick in 2010 would have been a small shot in the arm. For the P-Nats franchise, it would have been a once-in-10-years chance to lure folks who otherwise wouldn’t bother down I-95 to G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium. And having seen in person how Hagerstown milked Harper’s presence for all it was worth — calling its nondescript stadium ‘Harperstown’ and selling accompanying T-shirts at $25 a pop — I’m sure Potomac was looking forward to its turn.
Having already missed out on 2009 No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg, who made five starts for AA Harrisburg and six for AAA Syracuse before reaching the majors, surely the P-Nats were expecting a chance to cash in on Harper, who is still more than three months shy of his 19th birthday. The Nationals often say how they’ll bring Harper along slowly, and GM Mike Rizzo hinted that he wouldn’t be making the jump from AA to the majors anytime soon. But Rizzo also made it clear that A ball no longer presented a challenge for Harper, and a stop at Potomac was unnecessary.
It did, however, bring some bad publicity to an organization that could’ve used the good pub. Calling out a stadium’s drainage problems isn’t the same as saying it’s a dump not worth taking your family to, but it isn’t a ringing endorsement either. “Come see Bryce, and get $1 hot dogs” sounds a lot better.
I worked as reporter in Prince William from 2000 to 2005, and the irony is the P-Nats — then the Potomac Cannons — the whole time were trying to build a new field to replace The Pfitz. There was a plan near Dunn Loring/Merrifield for an 8,000-seat stadium/condominium/office complex, a try for Reston, and an active search led by owner Art Silber for a location along I-95 in Prince William. If I remember correctly, the plan was to build the same stadium that Cal Ripken’s Ironbirds have in Aberdeen, Md., and benefit from free advertising in the form of thousands of passing cars daily. The Cannons gave up a chance to host the Carolina League-California League all-star game in hopes they could host in their new stadium. The organization eventually settled for a new Pfitz in the same location, only to have Prince William County balk at paying its share of the $22.5 million price tag.
The problem with the still-standing old Pfitz more so than the stadium itself — at least from a fan’s perspective — is less the drainage and more the location. If covering the organization hadn’t once been related to my job or if I didn’t live close enough to the stadium to occasionally hear the PA announcer on a quiet evening, I might not even know it was there. Locals tend to talk about it only for the July 4 weekend fireworks extravaganzas. On a good day, it’s 10 minutes from exit 160. Had it been built along I-95, just the sight of it would prompt people to think about attending games, and they wouldn’t need GPS to find it.
Because the P-Nats are so hard to find, people really need a reason to go. Though their list of promotions are pretty creative — check out P-Nats fly swatter night, 90s Sitcom Night and Peanut-free night (something my allergic 6-year-old would actually appreciate), none of those would beat “come see Bryce Harper” in terms of casual or die-hard interest.
Prince William is actually a pretty great place to live when it isn’t obsessing about how it compares to Fairfax or Loudoun County. And in the same vein, the P-Nats will have to stand on their own two feet after again missing out on the Nationals’ top prospect. Because they’re a short drive from Nationals Park, the P-Nats will still get unexpected visits from rehabbing major leaguers — Ryan Zimmerman played three games this season. But there won’t be any Harperstown, or $25 T-shirt windfall for the organization.
On the bright side, next Wednesday is Harry Potter Night!