Nationals ‘miserable’ on, off field

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The end result wasn’t pretty. After getting swept over the weekend by the equally dismal San Diego Padres, the Nationals are now battling only the Seattle Mariners for the majors’ worst record and need to win five of their last six games to avoid 100 losses.

Perhaps the organization’s biggest failure this season, though, had nothing to do with major league success but rather its inability to sign first-round draft pick Aaron Crow.

The ninth selection in the June draft, the right-hander asked for as much as $9 million in a signing bonus. The Nationals countered with $2.1 million. As the Aug. 15 midnight deadline arrived, the two sides remained $500,000 apart, so Crow walked away. That left Washington with only a compensatory pick in next year’s draft to show for all the time, effort and money spent trying to sign a pitcher many believe never wanted to be a part of this organization in the first place.

“For them to not sign that guy, that’s huge,” an executive from another club said. “They couldn’t afford for that to happen.”

Fan apathy

All that bad news also has meant bad news on the business side.

The Nationals have averaged just more than 29,000 fans in paid attendance this season, the highest since the team’s first year in 2005. But the total ranks 19th among baseball’s 30 franchises and is the second lowest for a team playing in a new ballpark since Oriole Park at Camden Yards triggered a boom in stadium construction in 1992. The only sellouts this season came on Opening Night and for games against the rival Orioles.

“For a first year in a ballpark, it’s not good,” said Maury Brown, founder of the Business of Sports Network and publisher of bizofbaseball.com. “You have to add the caveat that they weren’t very good and they were decimated by injuries. But it’s just not good, and excuses only go so far.”

Perhaps even more troubling are the Nationals’ television ratings, which rank last in the major leagues. Fewer than 10,000 households tune in to watch the Nationals on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network on any given night, one-third of the total viewership of the Orioles, who rank 29th in the league. Sports Business Journal reported that viewership plummeted to fewer than 1,600 households on the night swimmer Michael Phelps won his record-setting eighth gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.

Radio ratings also rank last in baseball, with only about 25,000 fans tuning in on a weekly basis for games broadcast on WFED (AM-1500) and formerly on FM-107.7.

Kasten reiterated his belief that fan interest will come as the team improves, repeating his mantra that the Nationals will “get the attendance we deserve.”

“It is what it is,” he said. “All I know is that if we focus on our product, things will get better. When the team gets better, we’ll do even better. We’re quite satisfied with the support our fans have given us.”

Still on plan?

Club officials insist that in spite of the win-loss record, the organization has progressed on the field this year. Acta and Bowden have pointed to the number of young players who were given a chance to perform in the big leagues for the first time and showed they can become key contributors in 2009 and beyond.

A core group of players age 25 and younger - Zimmerman, Milledge, Dukes, John Lannan, Collin Balester and Joel Hanrahan - has emerged and should become the foundation of this team moving forward. Of that group, only Zimmerman was a regular in 2007.

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