- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

Eight fans sat in Section 537 of RFK Stadium on Wednesday evening to watch the Nationals play the Braves. That was eight more than the number of fans sitting in sections 538 and 539.

Suffice it to say, Nationals home games have hardly been the hot place to be this spring, as poor weather and bad baseball have routinely attracted fewer than 20,000 fans on most nights, resulting in a 17 percent drop in paid attendance from the same point last season. During the same period, Major League Baseball has recorded attendance growth of more than 4.5 percent overall.

But this weekend’s series against the Orioles, coupled with some higher temperatures and improved play, has team officials talking turnaround as the team heads into the final few months at RFK before moving into its new ballpark next year.

The Nationals have averaged about 21,300 fans per game through 21 home dates, a decline of 4,200 through the same number of dates last year. The team drew 40,389 to the home opener on April 2, but has topped 20,000 on just nine other occasions. Last year, the team attracted at least 20,000 to 16 of its first 20 games. Attendance fell 20 percent last season from the team’s inaugural year in 2005.

“It doesn’t look good,” said Maury Brown, creator of the Web site Bizofbaseball.com, who tracks attendance at baseball games. “When you’re below 20,000 on most nights, you’re not doing well. There have been some great moments and some great plays, but it’s going to cycle up and down. They’ll have more losses than wins and that makes it hard for fans to get into it.”

The Nationals played 14 home games in April — an unusually high number — when low temperatures, rain and snow often made for unpleasant baseball viewing in Washington and several other cities in the Northeast and Midwest. Leaguewide, attendance is up more than 4.5 percent and on pace to set a record for the fourth straight year. But bad early-season weather has been blamed for an 8 percent decline in attendance for the Orioles in Baltimore, and lower-than-expected attendance in Detroit and Cleveland.

A few Nationals games this month also have been marred by rain, assuring scant walk-up crowds and many no-shows.

“Pretty much every game we’ve been to this year, the weather’s been awful,” said Mark Tuben, a literary editor from Centreville who braved a vicious thunderstorm to attend Wednesday’s game with his wife, Katie.

But many fans say the primary reason for the smaller crowds is the quality of the team’s play.

The Nationals, despite winning six of their past seven games, have the second worst record in baseball and have scored fewer runs than any other team.

“It’s mainly a symptom that the word’s out on this team: They’re not very good,” said Ian Koski, a political consultant in Arlington who operates the Nationalspride.com Web site. “For every [game-winning] grand slam you get, there’s five games of one run, three-hit ball.”

Few expected the Nationals to contend for the pennant this year. The family of real-estate developer Theodore N. Lerner and team President Stan Kasten purchased the team from Major League Baseball one year ago and has been upfront about the need to rebuild the team from the ground up.

“We expect that our fans will understand the process and the plan we’re putting in place, and we’re doing exactly what we said we’d do,” team spokeswoman Chartese Burnett said. “We’re optimistic that the fans will be patient.”

Mr. Kasten was attending a meeting of Major League Baseball team owners in New York and was unavailable for comment.

Yesterday’s afternoon crowd of 24,631 was the fourth-highest at RFK Stadium this year, and Miss Burnett said the team expects to draw more than 25,000 to tonight’s game against the Orioles while topping 30,000 for each game on Saturday and Sunday. Last year’s Orioles series drew more than 90,000 fans; only the Yankees and Mets drew larger crowds for a three-game series at RFK.

“We’re excited about it and we think we’re headed into a fun weekend,” Miss Burnett said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm.”

Nationals manager Manny Acta, a former coach with the Expos who recalls crowds of fewer than 10,000 people at Olympic Stadium in Montreal, said that all things considered, attendance hasn’t been disappointing.

“This is a big stadium, and with everything surrounding our club and me being in Montreal before, I’d like to have 40,000, but I’m pretty impressed by more than 20,000 people showing up here every day,” Mr. Acta said. “Now that we’re playing better, the Orioles are in town and it’s starting to warm up, people are going to start showing up.”

Players, meanwhile, said it may be just a matter of continuing to win.

“It’d be nice if it were packed, but you can see by the attendance that people aren’t too happy with the way we’ve been playing,” outfielder Ryan Church said. “I guess it would be nice to have sellouts instead of 19- or 20,000, but we’ve just got to get hotter.”

Want more Nats? Check out Nats Home Plate.

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