- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2007

The Washington Nationals haven’t exactly filled up RFK Stadium this season — especially if you don’t count the Mets fans in attendance at this weekend’s three-game series. Officially, the average is 21,349 over 14 home dates, but the actual number of fans in the stands for many of these games was far less and sometimes close to the size of a good minor league crowd.

Now, that is expected to change when the new ballpark opens in Southeast next season. But the excitement about the return of baseball to Washington nearly is gone, and this ugly season could finish it off. The Lerner family and Stan Kasten better do more to bring some of that thrill back — spending money to put a good team on the field when the ballpark opens, for example — because the fan base here is not one steeped in a longtime tradition of Nationals baseball.

There are baseball fans here — yes, many of them — but three years does not create a foundation of loyalty. And those fans someday soon may have more options than ever to enjoy the game — cheaper, more fan-friendly options.

The Atlantic League, the independent league that offers Class AAA-caliber baseball without any affiliation to major league clubs, has been in talks to bring franchises to both Northern Virginia and Montgomery County, according to Peter Kirk, one of the principals in a company called Opening Day Partners. The company has successfully put Atlantic League franchises in Camden, N.J., and Lancaster, Pa., and is starting one this season in York, Pa.

“We have a list of communities that have talked to us about coming in,” Kirk said. “There are some obvious ones, including the Northern Virginia area, that would love … to have a franchise. We are exploring that. We have had some conversations with Montgomery County, but it is too early to say where they are going.”

The Atlantic League already is planting its flag in Nationals territory: A team is scheduled to begin play next year in Waldorf, Md. A winter fan festival there drew 4,000 people — this for a team that wouldn’t start play for more than a year. The Nationals didn’t see fit to organize any sort of fan fest, instead opting for a lame, so-called winter caravan.

The Atlantic League, entering its 10th season, began as an effort to organize a place for major league insurance players — players previously placed on Class AAA teams not as prospects but as borderline veterans available to be called up when needed — so that Class AAA ball could get back to becoming part of the player-development system.

“The concept we had was to form a brand new league with nothing but these so-called spare-parts players,” Kirk said. “Instead of being on a Triple-A roster, we would put them in this league and make Triple-A the top development league again like it used to be. This new league would be like the old Pacific Coast League — guys who need to play every day. When a major league club would have a player go down, or a young guy quite not ready, they could reach into this league and get what they needed. And the player could go to whatever team he wanted.”

The Atlantic League had been slowly growing and evolving since 1998. But it has taken off recently with the addition of teams in Lancaster, Pa., where the Barnstormers drew 370,000 fans last year, and this season in York — prime Orioles territory.

When communities see the success in places like Lancaster, they want in.

“There is no expansion in the minor leagues,” Kirk said. “When we look at the player pool, this league could actually support 12 to 16 teams. We have eight now. We have a list of communities that have talked to us about coming in.”

The league has attracted a mix of players over the years, players like future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson and Jose Canseco trying to extend their careers or ones like Joe Borowski and Brendan Donnelly trying to revive their careers. More than 300 players with major league experience have played in the Atlantic League so far. It is not major league baseball, but it is far from Class A ball — a little taste of the major leagues at minor league prices.

The Nationals offer a variation of that: a little taste of the major leagues but at major league prices.

The entire thinking about the relationship between minor league franchises and their major league affiliates has changed in the past 25 years. The belief was that affiliates close to the major league club would take business away.

Kirk led the change when he started the Class A Frederick Keys in 1989 as an Orioles affiliate, followed by the Class AA Bowie Baysox and Class A Delmarva Shorebirds. The close proximity enhanced the major league product, allowing fans to watch young players develop on their way to Camden Yards. Kirk sold those teams and moved on to his Atlantic League endeavors.

What is different about the Atlantic League, though, is that teams nearby have no connection to the Nationals or the Orioles. They are entities unto themselves and, because they are independent, not bound by territorial rights.

An Atlantic League team in Northern Virginia might hurt the Nationals’ Class A affiliate, the Potomac Nationals, who have failed to get a ballpark deal finalized in Prince William County.

But competition is good, and if there are two or even three Atlantic League teams in the Nationals market drawing anywhere from 750,000 to 1 million fans, the club’s management may be forced to be more accountable to the fan base than it is now.

That might be a better thing than what we have now: only a promise of better times ahead.

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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