- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

Elijah Dukes tore up his knee trying to catch a routine fly ball. Aaron Boone strained his calf trotting from the dugout to first base. Odalis Perez was ejected after committing two balks in one inning and then called an umpire “just stupid, an idiot.” The Nationals went on a six-game losing streak, which would have caused a local uproar if not for the revelation that only 9,000 households watch them on TV. The owners refused to pay $3.5 million in rent for their new ballpark, citing a feud with the city.

Oh, and a report surfaced that general manager Jim Bowden was interviewed by Major League Baseball and the FBI as part of a larger investigation into the skimming of money designated for Dominican prospects.

And this might not have qualified as the club’s worst week of the season.

Needless to say, there hasn’t been a whole lot of good news associated with the Nationals in 2008. Ryan Zimmerman hit that walk-off homer on Opening Night, and the season has been full of negativity since.

Which is precisely why it’s time for this team to make some positive headlines before its dwindling fan base abandons it altogether.

Considering all that has happened this year, it is in many ways remarkable that nearly 30,000 people have shown up at Nationals Park each game to watch the worst team in the majors. This, of course, has everything to do with the new ballpark on South Capitol Street and little to do with the home team’s performance inside it.

The Nationals have asked a lot of their fans. They have asked for patience through a rebuilding process that is a long way from completion. They have asked for payment of thousands (and in some cases tens of thousands) of dollars for tickets, parking and concessions to watch a last-place club.

And most importantly, they have asked for faith from their fan base, faith that the men in charge of the organization are going to provide a championship team in due time.

But how much longer can those fans be expected to keep the faith? There has been a sense, practically since the franchise arrived in town, that 2009 would be the make-or-break season for the Nationals. The organization essentially had a four-year honeymoon period - three at RFK Stadium, plus the first year at Nationals Park - to enjoy unquestioned support regardless of win-loss record.

By next year, the honeymoon will be over. The new ballpark won’t be a novelty, and fans won’t turn out unless it’s to see a winner.

Which makes this a critical time for the organization. The Nationals have been clear and upfront in revealing the plan for long-term success, and they’re not about to alter course. But that doesn’t mean the club can’t do something, anything, to appease fans and convince them it is honestly trying to improve the on-field product.

It doesn’t need to be anything overly dramatic or expensive. The Nationals don’t need to go out and sign a $100 million free agent.

But they always could sign a second-tier free agent over the winter, someone who has some name recognition and can help this club both now and in the future.

Or they could trade for a current major league player who could inject some immediate life into this team.

Or they could cut one or more of the underperforming veterans who have been clogging up the roster all season.

Or perhaps a non-baseball gesture to win over fans. Slash ticket prices. Give away freebies. Invite season ticket-holders to sit in the empty Presidents’ Club. Offer free parking for a weekend.

In other words, do something to say thank you to these fans who have stuck with the Nationals through a dismal season. Give them something positive to talk about for a change, something that constitutes good public relations and something that can go a long way toward appeasing all those fans who aren’t sure whether they’re coming back in 2009.

For an organization that has asked its fans to show some faith, it’s time for the Nationals to show they still have faith in their fans.

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