It began with genuine optimism. The Washington Nationals entered the 2008 season with a new ballpark, a new crop of young talent and a feeling that this once-downtrodden franchise was moving swiftly on a rebuilding path.
But as the season enters its final week, that sense of optimism is a distant memory. Fan interest is at astonishingly low levels as the team is poised to break the 100-loss mark. Free agent signings turned into busts. The top draft pick failed to sign. And there is a growing level of frustration with the team’s ownership, stretching from the front office to the clubhouse.
On the field, the Nationals have languished at or near the bottom of the major league standings since April. Serious injuries to key players like Chad Cordero, Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman and Dmitri Young helped contribute to the poor record - 58-98 with six games to play - but several others who were counted on to make the team competitive struggled through the worst seasons of their respective careers.
Even the best-run teams, however, can face injuries and fall short of expectations on the field. In the case of the Nationals, the problems appear to run far deeper, as the once-vaunted “Plan” hailed by team president Stan Kasten has been taken over by team owner Ted Lerner and his family, who wield an unusual level of day-to-day control over every team decision ranging from scouting to marketing.
“Clearly, every decision of any significance is made ultimately by Ted,” a city official familiar with the Lerners’ baseball operation said. “The decision-making and the whole approach starts at the top and remains at the top. And I don’t think anything is going to change significantly as long as Ted is running the team.”
‘People are just miserable’
Inside the team offices at Nationals Park, morale is at an all-time low. The team’s poor play has put a damper on enthusiasm, but team employees said the on-field issues aren’t the main problem. Workers describe a challenging, often tedious environment in which every decision and every dollar spent is scrutinized by Ted Lerner; his son, Mark; or sons-in-law, Ed Cohen and Bob Tanenbaum.
Lengthy purchase orders are needed for basic office supplies, for instance, and the use of courier services is discouraged. Pay raises and expense reimbursements are delayed for months. Employees of the Nationals and Major League Baseball alike were astonished when the club did not send anyone to either the sport’s scouting school or industry meetings - events attended by every other franchise.
“Every decision they make is about money,” one former member of the organization said. “You just can’t run a ballclub like that.”
What’s more, employees are embarrassed by what they see as a series of public relations gaffes by the team, including the refusal to pay $3.5 million in rent on Nationals Park on the grounds that the ballpark was not “substantially complete” by Opening Day. Others expressed disappointment in the team’s decision to hold its annual charity gala in Prince George’s County instead of the District.
In the past month, the Nationals have witnessed the exodus of Tom Ward, the team’s vice president of marketing, and Mike Shapiro, the club’s vice president of business affairs. While the precise reasons for their departures remain unknown, sources close to the team said they are a bellwether for a larger employee exodus.
“People are just miserable,” said an industry source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he does business with the team. “There’s going to be a lot of people following them.”
Or as one disgruntled team employee put it: “Everyone wants out, and it’s entirely because of the Lerners.”
In addition to discontent among the Nationals’ rank-and-file employees, there is tension at the very top. Sources both inside and outside the organization said Kasten has not been provided the level of organizational control he desires or was promised when he joined the Lerner family’s bid for the team.
“Stan hasn’t been able to do the things he wants to do,” a source close to the team said. “They’re not letting him do the things he was brought here to do.”
Sources said Kasten has become increasingly frustrated, and some suggested he could step down as president, though most said his departure was unlikely.
Kasten, however, insists he has a “great personal relationship with the entire Lerner family” and said everyone in the franchise is working hard to rebuild the team.
“We’re all moving forward, and I am committed to making this work,” he said. “We’re here, we’re all doing the things we need to do. We’ve made great progress in some ways and have had disappointment in others. But that’s all part of the building process. We’re all aware of it, and we’re all charging forward.”
Mark Lerner, the most visible member of the family, declined to be interviewed for this article. Through a team spokesman, the Lerners released the following statement:
“The Washington Nationals ownership group - including Stan Kasten - is proud of its management, team and employees. We have asked much of them in their first 26 months and they have performed, including opening a new ballpark, building a young and improving Major League roster while growing one of the best Minor League systems in baseball, and beginning to brand the ‘National Pastime in the Nation’s Capital’ after its absence from Washington DC for more than 30 years. Working closely together we intend to catch our breath after setting an exhilarating, but exhausting, pace for the last two years, and will continue to develop a team on the field and off that get the Nationals closer to being the kind of contender that our hometown deserves.”
The road to 100 losses
Upon talking control of the organization in the summer of 2006, the Lerner family and Kasten made it clear there would be no shortcuts toward on-field success. The Nationals needed to be rebuilt from the bottom up, with scouting and player development taking priority over attempts to win on the major league level.
But when a Washington team that was widely expected to be baseball’s worst in 2007 surprised skeptics by finishing 73-89 and playing .500 ball from mid-May through September, the organization’s timetable perhaps was sped up a bit.
General manager Jim Bowden made several roster moves last winter designed to help the club win more games in the short term, signing veteran free agents Paul Lo Duca, Aaron Boone, Rob Mackowiak, Johnny Estrada, Willie Harris and Odalis Perez to one-year contracts totaling $10.4 million. Bowden also re-signed veterans Dmitri Young, Ronnie Belliard and Wily Mo Pena to multiyear extensions in July 2007, committing another $17.5 million to those three players through 2009.
Combined with the acquisitions of promising young players like Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, the Nationals entered 2008 believing they could reach the .500 mark.
“On paper and talent-wise, this team out of spring training was better than the team we had here last year,” manager Manny Acta said.
But after opening the season in grand fashion with Zimmerman’s walk-off homer highlighting Opening Night at Nationals Park, Washington quickly fell to the bottom of the National League East standings and has remained there since.
The supposedly improved lineup lost Zimmerman, Johnson and Austin Kearns (among others) to injuries for prolonged stretches, leaving behind the majors’ least-productive offense.
The team’s biggest strength since it arrived in town, its bullpen, crumbled after Cordero hurt his shoulder on Opening Night. Luis Ayala endured a miserable year before getting dealt to the New York Mets, and Jon Rauch was traded to Arizona.
And of those veterans signed by Bowden during the winter, only Harris, Boone, Perez and Belliard made significant contributions to this year’s team. Lo Duca, Mackowiak and Estrada were released in midseason; Young and Pena were saddled by injuries.
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.”
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.
“All those guys weren’t sitting here a year ago as the plan,” Bowden said. “They weren’t there. So we’ve made really good progress in what the long-term plan is. Since Stan and the Lerners took over, it has been two years, and our development system continues to get better. Our young players at the big league level continue to get better, and it’s right on target as to what Stan wanted to accomplish when he and the Lerners took over.”
Only the most ardent (and patient) fans, though, are likely to find the silver linings in an otherwise downtrodden season.
How, then, do the Nationals convince a casual fan base that sees only the poor winning percentage that actual progress is taking place?
“You have to win at this level for that to happen,” Bowden said. “But I think certainly the e-mails we get from fans, they understand the progress that we’ve made and the direction we’re going in. Everyone has been up front with the fans from the very beginning, and they understand. Does anyone like losing 90 games? No, nobody likes that.”