Until we get a Washington Post Sports Podcast, we will have to debate the thorny questions the old-fashioned way: in way-too-long blog posts.
Barry Svrluga: So I was standing on the field Sunday at Nationals Park on what appeared to be a perfect day for baseball — or for any kind of ball, for that matter. The Nationals had a chance to clinch the NL East that day, and I was excited about the chance to record history, because why else would you do this job if you didn’t get excited to record history? We don’t root for the teams, but we do root for ourselves, and wrapping up a fourth division title in six years Sunday fit better than waiting till Tuesday or dragging it out.
Anyway, in chatting with Chelsea Janes and Jorge Castillo, the subject of what the crowd might be like came up. Players ask writers about crowd size and fans more than you might guess, and Sunday — which was full of possibility — was no different. I looked at the blue sky, felt the crisp September air, and thought, “Probably 38,000 or so?”
The actual crowd: 32,627.
Now, what does this mean? (Dan, I’ll beat you to it: What does anything mean?)
I wrote about attendance and the Nats fan base Monday. And what I’ve been reminded since is that attending games is not only a financial decision, it’s a personal decision. Some people are put off by Metro delays. Others don’t like parking prices. Many will come at all costs in all conditions. Some surely are affected by the start of the NFL season, even the start of the Redskins’ season.
There just is no consensus, but it seems like a worthy topic, where there’s more to mine, so Steinberg and I thought we’d have a conversation about it. Dan, you were at the Redskins-Eagles game Sunday. Did you think that was the right place to be, and do you think any fans there were distracted by what was going on at Nats Park?
Steinberg: What does anything mean???? Love it. Let’s scrap this and talk about the meaning of life.
But anyhow: I dunno. I mean, I kind of think it would have been weird going to the Nats game Sunday only because of the possible chance to see a clinch. If you assume both the Nats and Braves had like a 70 percent chance of winning — and that’s probably high — there was still a less than 50 percent chance the clinch would actually happen Sunday. Plus, there was a very good chance the Nats would finish their game first — as they did — which would mean you’d be hanging around an emptying baseball stadium, doing nothing, on the first day of the NFL season, and that you’d only get to celebrate after following an out-of-town game on your phone. (We didn’t know the Braves and Marlins would go super long, and that that game would wind up on the big screen.)
But the bigger issue is the Nats essentially clinched the division title in June. Doesn’t mean this hasn’t been an incredible season, or that it wasn’t an incredible accomplishment. But when you combine that utter inevitability and lack of drama with the uncertainty of whether it would really happen Sunday with the lure of enjoying the first Sunday of football — even if you hate the Redskins — I mean, I was not at all surprised that the crowd was average-ish. That seems right to me.
As for sensing any distraction at FedEx Field? Nah. I mean, Boz and I were a tiny bit distracted. But there was a 0 percent chance the Nats were not going to win the NL East. That doesn’t make you stare at your phone in a fit of distraction during an NFL game on Sept. 10.
Svrluga: Okay, that’s all fine, and it explains a lot about these specific circumstances on this specific Sunday. I would argue that the inevitability of the clinch should be overtaken by the enormity of the accomplishment: Baseball division titles mean more than basketball or football or hockey division titles, for whatever reason, and four in six years is a thing, and seven weeks of spring training plus 162 games don’t invite celebration, so when celebration is allowed through the door, well, then, heck yeah, take advantage of it.
But let’s get away from Sunday and think about the Nats fan base in general. What is it now, and what can it be?
I think what I’m deciding is: What it is now is what it will be. And that’s fine. As I wrote this morning, in the past six seasons, the Nats have ranked first in win total once, second twice and could finish first or second again this season. The highest they have ever ranked in attendance is 11th. Given the sizes of the stadiums and the markets in, say, Los Angeles and New York, it’s unreasonable to think the Nats are going to draw more than the Dodgers or the Yankees. They’re not. Again, that’s fine.
But the more I think about it, the more I believe it’s more than just the size of the crowds. It’s the energy, too. Dan, you have written more than once about Dusty Baker saying he would love for the crowds to have more spunk. I have, for sure, spoken to players who wish the same thing. They know what it feels like to play in San Francisco and St. Louis. They just want the same for their home park.
Could the standings, again, play into that? Sure. Even with all the division titles, the Nationals have never really been in a bite-your-fingernails pennant race. Their leads on Sept. 1, in the years they won the NL East, were 6 1/2 games, seven games, nine games and, this year, 15 games. Would more people show up on the weekend after Labor Day for a series with the Phillies if the Phillies were a half-game back? Probably?
Steinberg: Well, but four out of six titles also helps explain why this one wasn’t as big a deal. It’s old news. You almost expect a division title at this point.
But there is definitely a different question here, the one about noise and energy and enthusiasm. I dunno. Any answer I come up with would be completely speculative. I’ve seen one of our mutual friends argue, repeatedly, that the architecture of Nats Park — where so many sections are physically distinct from each other, rather than being one contiguous whole — keeps down excitement.
Anecdotally, the Nats Park crowd seems to include more older folks, and more parents with young kids, and less emotionally charged (and alcohol-fueled) maniacs than those at other D.C. venues. The park welcomes and almost encourages casual wandering — from the nifty concourse views to the interesting concessions to the frickin’ playground in center field. And that’s great for families, but maybe less great for frenetic noise. Just about every time I go with my family, we leave by the sixth inning at the latest. Sorry/not sorry. It’s my dang money. I can do what I want to do.
The atmosphere will be great for the playoffs. I don’t have any doubt about that. And maybe it’ll never be like Boston or St. Louis, because D.C. isn’t like Boston or St. Louis. Between us — and everyone reading this — even if I thought there was a problem with Washington sports fans (and I don’t), I wouldn’t make a big deal over it, because Washington sports fans are my customers, and I just am uncomfortable criticizing them. The customer is always right. Have it your way. You deserve a break today. Etc.
Svrluga: I am a big believer in one truism: Baseball is different. It’s not supposed to have the rabid energy of the NFL or the NHL, because it happens just about every dang day. You can go to an NFL game eight times a year and have, say, four beers. You can’t go to 20 or 30 or 40 or -– gulp -– 81 MLB games and get all fueled up like that. Not without ending up with a very light wallet and a very wrecked liver.
And I’m also not asking D.C. to be St. Louis or Boston.
One of the many readers who emailed me about this topic this morning brought up something you would probably agree with, Dan. There is trepidation for this fan base given what we know about what has happened in the past. It’s not just that the three previous Nats’ division titles were followed by gut-wrenching playoff losses (Pete Kozma! Buster Posey! Clayton Kershaw!). It’s that the Caps have frittered away similar opportunities, and the Wizards are only now regaining relevance, and the Redskins, I mean, where to start with them?
Maybe the fans in this town, subconsciously but collectively, hold back?
Steinberg: Re: that last point, please don’t give away my next column topic! (Really.)
I don’t know. This is what it comes down to for me: I’m not a Nats fan, but I often go to games as a ticket-holder, and I feel comfortable there. Like, I feel I’m around people who generally have the same attitude toward sports that I do: Sports are fun, and it’s way more fun when your team wins, but also you don’t need to burn anything or curse at anyone or rend your garments either way.
I’ve said this before, but I think Nats fans are very reasonable, for the most part. And I think it’s reasonable not to go crazy cheering for a third strike in June, or early September. Though I certainly understand if players wish more people did that. And I don’t know why fans in some towns seem more willing to rise to their feet with two strikes.
But again, I’ll go back to this: If the Nats win the World Series this fall, we will have stories and columns galore on how amazing the atmosphere at Nats Park was. And they will be accurate.
Last thing though: Isn’t it possible that as this generation of kids grows up with the first-place Nats baked into their lives, they will turn into more emotionally invested (and louder) adult fans?
Svrluga: Yep, that’s absolutely possible/probable. Should we revisit this in, say, 2027, when there are 22-year-olds who have known nothing but baseball here, and the Nats are clinching their 12th division title? Yep. Let’s do that. Meet you here.
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