- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2012

When Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made a preseason prediction that Nationals Park would become “the ticket in town” — and team manager Davey Johnson subsequently called Washington “a baseball town, not a football town” — both men raised eyebrows.

Washington — first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League — a baseball town?

For decades, the question was moot, as relevant as, Can Omaha become a leading Spring Break destination? After all, Washington lacked a major league franchise — and even when the Montreal Expos became the Nationals in 2005, ending the city’s 33-year baseball drought, poor play and civic apathy soon followed, season after slouching season, as seemingly inevitable as muggy August afternoons.

No longer.

The Nationals are 18-10, tied for the third-best record in the majors. Between rookie sensation Bryce Harper and pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals have what Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci calls “already two of the five biggest drawing cards” in the sport.

Last weekend, the Nationals won two of three games against the Philadelphia Phillies, the five-time defending NL East champions and reigning neighborhood bullies. More importantly, turnout was high — 106,931 fans over three days, the second largest total for a Nationals home series in April or May — and loudly favored the home team, reversing a trend of Phillies fans overrunning Nationals Park in recent seasons.

A losing legacy

For most of Washington’s history, baseball has meant two things: (a) Losing; (b) All of the above.

Granted, Washington baseball was once respectable. Behind Hall of Famers such as Walter Johnson, the Senators captured the 1924 World Series and the American League pennant in 1925 and 1933. After losing the 1933 World Series to the New York Giants, however, the team slid into prolonged ineptitude.

When the Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961, their expansion replacements proved equally inept. (They’d been rushed into existence to protect Major League Baseball’s Congressional antitrust exemption — and could anything be more Washington?) The club enjoyed a single winning season over 11 years and ultimately bolted for Texas, though not before angry fans stormed the field and forced a forfeit loss to the Yankees in their final game.

Since arriving from Montreal, the current Nationals haven’t been much better, with a moderately successful inaugural campaign giving way to six straight losing seasons and the team finishing in the bottom third of attendance among NL clubs despite playing in a new ballpark.

Last year, the Nationals even had the smallest number of Facebook fans of any MLB franchise — with just more than 76,000, they weren’t even in the, er, same league as the Yankees’ majors-leading 3.3 million.

Washington has never really had a championship baseball club, per se,” said manager Davey Johnson, a former Senators batboy who grew up in the area. “Back in the 1950s, my next door neighbor was a pitcher for the [Senators]. I remember him balking with the bases loaded against the Yankees.” Johnson played for the Orioles from 1965 to 1972.

“When I was a rookie in Baltimore, I was a football fan, a Baltimore Colts fan,” he said. “They had [Hall of Fame quarterback] Johnny Unitas and company. I became a basketball fan when the [Baltimore] Bullets had Wes Unseld and Kevin Loughery and Earl “the Pearl” [Monroe]. Because they won.”

Mediocre, absentee baseball left locals looking elsewhere, investing their athletic passions in a series of short-term flings — the Gilbert Arenas-era Washington Wizards; the currently contending Washington Capitals — and an enduring, up-and-down love affair with the Washington Redskins.

Thanks largely to three Super Bowl victories, the District is a place where Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is as polarizing as the Affordable Care Act; where conservative pundit-cum-baseball nerd George Will once ranked the team’s importance as “just below the president, and well ahead of the vice president”; where President Richard Nixon famously proved Mr. Will’s point by diagramming a Super Bowl play for former coach George Allen; where not one but two 24-hour sports talk radio stations devote more bandwidth to quarterback controversies than YouTube does to kitten videos.

The Redskins may not always be the best sports boyfriend — see Haynesworth, Albert — but hey, at least they’ve been around.

“It’s an obsessive Redskins town, completely intertwined in people’s hearts and souls,” said MLB.com baseball writer Richard Justice, formerly of The Washington Post. Hate or love, I could never tell which — but I can’t imagine a place that cares more about football.”

Game changers?

The Nationals are working to change that. Between overall No. 1 draft picks Harper and Strasburg, the franchise boasts the most exciting young duo since Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden starred for the 1980s New York Mets (skippered by one, Davey Johnson); under Rizzo, the club has restocked its minor league farm system and assembled a young and talented supporting cast that figures to remain intact for years to come.

Not coincidentally, the team’s front office has shifted its marketing strategy: While former Nationals president Stan Kasten went on Philadelphia radio two years ago and invited Phillies fans to come to Nationals Park for Opening Day, the franchise spent last week encouraging locals to “Take Back the Park.” District Mayor Vincent Gray even declared a “Natitude Weekend.”

“A whole generation of kids went without baseball here in town,” Nationals Chief Operating Officer Andrew Feffer said. “So for us to build a fan base and brand identity will be a great amount of work. The key thing is fielding a team worthy of fan support.

“We have a very young, competitive team on the field now — and with guys like [Ian] Desmond, [Danny] Espinosa, Harper, Strasburg, [Tyler] Clippard, [Drew] Storen, we’re poised to be a great team for a long time. That’s part of how you differentiate yourself in a marketplace that’s crowded not just for sports, but for entertainment and tourism.”

District sports fans may be notoriously transient — sharing a mindset with Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, who once said, “I just don’t care about the Washington Nationals … you move to a new city, you don’t give up your allegiance to your hometown team” — but they’re also political animals, prone to front-running and drawn to success.

In that sense, the Nationals may have impeccable timing.

The Wizards are arguably the worst NBA team not based in Charlotte, a long way from rekindling the city’s grassroots affinity for basketball. Judging from frustrated sports talk radio chatter, the Capitals have gone from fun surprise to overhyped disappointment — the lack of citywide excitement aroused by their current playoff run only confirming their lost momentum as a bandwagon fan favorite.

As for the Redskins? After a dysfunctional decade under Snyder, the franchise seems more vulnerable to hearts-and-minds poaching than ever before, reduced to betting all on the hope that rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III can turn around the team and dazzle an increasingly disgruntled fan base.

Since 2010, the team has reduced FedEx Field’s seating capacity from 91,000 to 79,000. Last year, ESPN Magazine ranked the Redskins 121st out of 122 major league teams in an annual survey that measures fan return for their money and team loyalty.

“Unless Griffin is great right away and the Redskins are good, the trend is going to continue,” said Steve Czaban, a sports talk radio host with ESPN 980. “The window is there [for the Nationals], no question. I think they’ll make some inroads. But baseball towns are funky. Being a fan is like being in a club. It’s more than just rooting for the team.”

Czaban has a point: Some cities follow baseball. Others — populated by obsessive, multigenerational diehards — live it.

In Boston, Red Sox fans celebrated the New England Patriots’ first Super Bowl victory with chants of “Yankees [expletive]!” When Nationals utilityman Mark DeRosa played for the Chicago Cubs, fans often left supportive notes on his car when he was playing well — and, um, critical missives when he wasn’t.

“I’ve never been recognized more [out in public] than in Chicago,” said DeRosa, who has played for seven major league teams. “You know when you’re in a baseball town. The fans know when to cheer, and what they’re cheering for.”

Will Leitch concurs. The New York magazine sportswriter grew up rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals and once lived in the city, widely considered to be the nation’s top baseball town. Last year, he made his first visit to Nationals Park.

Sitting with his parents above the visiting dugout, Mr. Leitch noticed something odd.

“Fans kept walking past us the whole game, back and forth,” he said. “It was the craziest thing. Finally, we figured out that they were going down to the Cardinals’ dugout and asking if they could get [then-St. Louis slugger] Albert Pujols’ autograph. During the game!Like he wasn’t batting or doing anything.” Leitch laughed.

“My dad was morally offended,” he said. “I was more amused. Still, as a baseball fan, you have to know to not do that. I was like, ‘Wow, Washington is new to baseball.’ Maybe they’ll get it in time. They’re not there yet.”

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