“Thank you, Max, for all your efforts,” boomed the voice of public address announcer Jerome Hruska, “and congratulations.”
It felt, in some ways, posthumous. Within the hour, a 27-year-old left-hander who has undergone two Tommy John surgeries and been cut by the god-awful Baltimore Orioles took the mound. Josh Rogers pitches for the Nationals now. Max Scherzer does not. There were 16,309 folks scattered about the ballpark to take in that reality.
Something was lost for the Nationals in the waning days of July, when a purge of players — as necessary as it was painful — sacrificed the club’s present in hopes of a better future. Restocking a bare cupboard is sound strategy, but man, this is hard.
Rogers has an interesting story and every right to try to pitch his way into a big league job next season. But Scherzer is a Hall of Famer. He was not going to pitch this Nationals’ bunch back into a pennant race. He was, however, going to be a reason for fans to show up at the yard every fifth day. Right now, there is the day-in, day-out magic of Juan Soto — who is absolutely mind-blowing — but at every other spot … room for growth, to be generous.
So there’s a central question for the Nationals as they wrap up their penultimate homestand of the season Sunday and head toward a winter unlike any they have experienced in a decade. There will be holes on the roster to fill, and General Manager Mike Rizzo and his front office will be entrusted with filling them.
There’s also the matter of filling the seats. Which means: Who, in 2022, will be worth pulling out the wallet to see in person? Soto and …?
Some data points: That crowd Wednesday wasn’t the smallest of the homestand; that would be the 13,916 listed for the first game of a day-night doubleheader Sept. 4 against the New York Mets. And that wasn’t as small as the smallest of the season. The smallest, since Nationals Park opened to full capacity June 11? Sept. 2 against Bryce Harper and the Philadelphia Phillies, when just 12,280 people bought tickets.
Since baseball returned to Washington in 2005, just five announced crowds (not counting those limited by D.C.'s coronavirus restrictions) have been smaller than that intimate gathering that came to see Nats-Phillies. They were all from 2010. That was the summer of Strasmas, when Stephen Strasburg made his debut and injected a previously foreign energy into the franchise and the fan base. It was the summer Harper was drafted and signed. It was the first time there was real hope that the club could be something other than a doormat.
Attendance, though, isn’t only about the fate of the team in a particular summer. It’s tied quite closely to the season(s) that preceded it. That 2010 season followed back-to-back 100-loss campaigns. From 2006 through 2009, no franchise lost more games than the Nats. The shine of the new ballpark, which opened in 2008, had worn off. Putting money down for 81 games of that product? Over the winter before the 2010 season — the time when decisions about whether to buy season tickets are made — it made people pause.
What does this history have to do with the current Nats? Covid, of course, has wrecked so much, so its impact on the fortunes of a sports franchise are trivial in comparison. Still, it’s undeniable that the Nationals’ ability to build off the 2019 World Series championship was gutted by the pandemic that shortened the 2020 season to 60 games and locked out fans. That continued into this season, with partial capacity over the first two-plus months.
So here we are, concluding the first 162-game season in which the Nationals will have a losing record since 2011. Crowd size at an individual game is linked to a team’s season-ticket base because the announced attendance in Major League Baseball isn’t how many bodies come through the turnstiles. It’s how many tickets have been sold.
Those tiny crowds against the Mets and the Phillies, the smallest at Nationals Park in 11 seasons, are a pretty good indication that the season-ticket base is at a low ebb. With no Scherzer, with no Trea Turner, with uncertainty around Strasburg’s health and the potential for a last-place finish this season, might that further erode the base? I already have heard from some longtime season-ticket holders who are less than pleased with some price increases for 2022, particularly in the club seating level.
And then, there’s this: Last Sunday, Scherzer recorded the 3,000th strikeout of his career, and he tipped his hat at his home park to the home fans — at Dodger Stadium. A crowd of 42,637 Angelenos cheered him as their own. For the Nationals, that total is more than the listed capacity of their home park. For the Dodgers, it’s the 34th-biggest crowd of the season.
From Washington, that’s all hard to watch. In a perfect world, it’s a moment that should have happened here, with Scherzer wearing the uniform in which he recorded more than half his strikeouts. That it didn’t says a lot about where the Nats find themselves as the fall of 2021 approaches: a last-place team with more stars to replace than stars on the roster.
“I will say this,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “I know from ownership, from Mike, myself — we don’t like losing, and we want to win. So we’re going to bang our heads together this winter and make sure we put a 26-man roster together next year that’s going to be able to compete to win our division and go further in the playoffs. I mean, that’s our goal.”
Put me down as a skeptic about that goal in 2022, which doesn’t make me a skeptic about 2023 and beyond.
Still, this much is clear: Scherzer is gone, and all that remains are the championship legacy and the good deeds he left behind, worth documenting on the scoreboard. With him went the most compelling reason to buy a ticket every fifth day. The Nationals’ charge: develop more pitchers and players who are worth paying good money to see because that’s when September can go from its current sleepy state back to electric, which is what we became used to around here.