- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Letters from team management can mean bad news for Major League Baseball fans.

Pittsburgh included some good news last month in its correspondence, instructing season-ticket holders on how to buy tickets for what would be the Pirates’ first postseason games since 1992. But the missive also mentioned, by the way, a price increase for 2013 tickets.

The Pirates need another 10 wins to assure their first winning season in two decades and they were 11/2 games out of a wild card berth entering Thursday, but at least their fans have reason to cheer.

They could be in Houston, supporting the majors’ worst team by far, which might be on the verge of signing 50-year-old Roger Clemens to pitch in a game/delay his Hall of Fame eligibility.

The Astros are so horrid (91/2 games behind the next-to-worst Chicago Cubs), Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow was led to write a long letter to season-ticket holders last month, outlining the team’s plan to return to respectability.

“We know that as Astros employees, we are stewards of your team and we share your desire to bring a World Series championship to Houston,” he wrote. “The future is bright.”

If fans in Houston want an example of how quickly fortunes can change, they can look toward Washington.

After 100-loss seasons in two of the past four years, the Nationals sport baseball’s best record. Attendance is up, energy is great and the buzz is growing as the team is a couple of weeks away from clinching D.C.’s first postseason berth since 1933.

The letter that Nats fans received Wednesday from team management didn’t jump the gun on how to get playoff tickets. It didn’t mention any price increase (not that a hike can’t come later). And it didn’t beg for mercy and plead for patience.

It just warned fans that fixed seats on the bandwagon will have a cutoff point next season.

“Few things in our culture unite family, friends and communities like the game of baseball, and we want to make sure that everyone gets the opportunity to share in this great time-honored tradition,” read the letter. “With this goal in mind, we have decided to limit the number of season tickets available for 2013 to 20,000 of our 41,000 available seats. We are committed to ensuring that every fan who wants to see a live game at Nationals Park has the opportunity to do so.”

After capping Stephen Strasburg’s season, they plan to cap their season-ticket holders. One smart move deserves another.

The team’s wild success on the field has been nearly equaled at the gate. Attendance at Nationals Park is up about 27 percent this season, second only to Miami’s new Marlins Park. The Nats are 14th in home attendance, averaging slightly less than 30,000 fans per game. They haven’t drawn that well since 2005, their inaugural season in D.C., when they were 11th in attendance.

Now that the Nats are a national story with big stars and a bright future, it makes sense for ownership to create more demand locally, perhaps spurring it past the point that it actually exists. Based on the smallest crowd this season, the Nats’ don’t have more than 14,000 season-ticket holders.

Yet the team is going to “limit” sales next season to 20,000? Nicely done.

It won’t be a surprise if the Nats hit that mark, partially thanks to announcing that there is such a mark. It also won’t be a shock if demand is such that the ceiling quietly is revised to, say, 25,000. That would leave about 16,000 single-game seats available for walk-up sales, and likely ensure the highest attendance in franchise history.

But with the team they’ll field next year, the Nats can keep the bar at 20,000 season tickets and still smash the franchise-record average of 33,728 fans who trekked to RFK Stadium in 2005. A full season of Strasburg, Bryce Harper’s second campaign, the continued maturation of Ian Desmond/Danny Espinosa and some sort of flag flying in the outfield (NL East at the very least) should make 2012 feel like the warmup it was supposed to be.

There won’t be much for critics to harp on at that point. No endless bashing of Project Shutdown Strasburg. No unjustified denigration of the Nats’ fans base. No litany of lame jokes about the team’s now-evident “Natitude.”

In the business of baseball and the pleasure of playing well, the Nats have arrived. Their next letter to fans should say: “Thanks. Let’s do it again.”

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