The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Buying a Nationals jersey has never felt so precarious

In a down season with an uncertain future, how is one to choose?

(Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
6 min

On Thursday night, as the Washington Nationals faced the Colorado Rockies, a quick scan of the upper deck at Nationals Park showed the following jerseys: a few colors of Juan Soto’s No. 22, Patrick Corbin’s white No. 46, Stephen Strasburg’s blue No. 37 and, in a twist, Edwin Jackson’s blue No. 40 even though he last pitched here in 2017.

Every jersey has a story. But every jersey has a price tag, too, and Nationals fans are struggling with whose to buy in this lost season of a rebuild. Spend $135 on a Soto replica jersey if he might leave in a few years? Invest in something with Josh Bell’s name on it with the risk he’s traded at the deadline in August? Or get nostalgic, maybe with Sean Doolittle or Strasburg, despite both pitchers being on the injured list and in the back halves of their careers?

It’s a complicated time in the world of Nationals merchandise. So The Washington Post polled more than 50 fans, asking what jersey each would purchase right now. This extremely scientific study included 15 votes for Soto, 13 for Keibert Ruiz, eight for Josiah Gray, five for the retired Ryan Zimmerman, three for Doolittle and Bell, and one each for Strasburg, Riley Adams, Lane Thomas, Josh Rogers, Paolo Espino and Luis García (who is in the minor leagues).

The three top answers are 24 or younger and have at least two more years of team control after this one. Many fans shared feelings of distrust after eight players were dealt in last summer’s fire sale — and after Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon departed via free agency in back-to-back offseasons. It has been a while since buying a Nationals jersey seemed this precarious.

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“If you look at the list of expiring contracts and think about the trade deadline, there really aren’t many options,” said Chris Cleveland, who picked Gray and already owns jerseys for Soto, Corbin, Max Scherzer, Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber. The latter three were traded away in 2021. “At this point, they really have to push the young guys who are going to stick around. What else is there to sell?”

That’s an all-encompassing question for a last-place team at 16-30 after Thursday’s win. Friday night, the Nationals officially postponed a matchup with the Colorado Rockies less than a half-hour before first pitch. Many fans were already in the stadium, holding Juan Soto bobbleheads, and reporters shared the announcement about eight minutes before it hit the big screen.

Discussions to postpone games take place between teams and Major League Baseball officials. A person familiar with these talks said the Nationals tried to postpone the game earlier Friday, but MLB did not approve the decision until the game was near. A person with knowledge of MLB’s thinking confirmed that officials felt there was a “viable window” to fit the contest in, then changed their minds once the forecast worsened in the evening. What’s left were angry, booing fans, some of whom paid for nonrefundable parking and concessions.

The game will be made up as part of a split doubleheader Saturday, the first leg beginning at 12:05 p.m. and the second at 6:05. Aaron Sanchez will pitch for the Nationals in the afternoon before Joan Adon takes the ball at night.

When it comes to jerseys, the main team store at Nationals Park has displayed Soto, Corbin, Strasburg and Victor Robles this spring. It is no coincidence that all of them were on the World Series-winning team in 2019. In the kids’ section, Soto, Zimmerman and Corbin are on the shelf. For T-shirts, shoppers can pick among Soto, Bell, Strasburg, Zimmerman and Robles.

Want Ruiz, as 13 randomly selected fans did? That has to be personalized. Online, where official MLB apparel is sold by Fanatics, that will run you $384.99 — but at least shipping was free if you ordered Thursday night.

“I can’t buy Soto — not with the clock ticking on his likely departure,” Dean Schleicher said. “If I knew what number [top prospects Cade Cavalli and Brady House] would wear, that’d be tempting. Ruiz is my answer because I could wear it until 2028 when [agent Scott] Boras takes him to free agency.”

The team chooses the jerseys fans can buy in its in-house stores, which typically means more options are at Nationals Park than appear online. The catch is that teams can’t buy just a handful of jerseys for a given player. There’s a minimum buy, meaning clubs won’t purchase jerseys for a player if they do not foresee selling enough of them. What the Nationals will do, though, is purchase extra blank jerseys and kits to press numbers and names onto them to meet demand.

Sara Hudson, a longtime fan, has no plans to buy any jersey this season. Her reasoning blends immediate uncertainty, the Nationals’ record of not keeping homegrown stars and Major League Baseball’s handling of the lockout over the winter.

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“Would not buy any current guys,” she said. “There are plenty that I love, but after the talent hemorrhage I have seen, I would not invest in any of them. And after the owners’ behavior during the lockout, I vowed not to spend a dime. I watch on MASN, and that’s it for the season.”

Maybe Valerie Barger has the right idea. Every season, Barger picks what she calls “an underdog player” and buys a personalized jersey. In 2019, she chose longtime Nationals infielder Adrián Sanchez. In 2020, reliever Tanner Rainey was her pick. In 2021, she smartly chose Espino, a veteran pitcher who stuck. She bought a Rogers jersey this April.

When she opened the package from Fanatics, Barger noticed that Rogers was misspelled as “Rodgers.” After she panicked a bit, customer service was good about sending a replacement. Her tradition of going with lower-profile players has otherwise been fun and stress-free.

“You could buy a jersey for anyone — a guy who just signed a five-year deal — and before you know it, something happens and he’s gone,” Barger said. “That’s the business side of it. There is always some gamble on the buyer’s end.”