The president of the Washington Nationals Fan Club quotes ESPN’s Bill Simmons as saying “”People in DC do not
care about that team. At all.”
A look at Washington’s recent and past baseball history shows this statement is pure folly. People love to bash DC fans for poor attendance, but they always fail to mention that, in almost every case, the team presented to Washington fans was not worthy of their, or any city’s support. No city, save the 1962-68 New York Mets fans, supports poor baseball teams over the long term.
Not even Boston. Get a copy of Total Baseball or go to www.retrosheet.org or www.baseball-reference.com and look up the Red Sox records and attendance from 1961-66, the down years after Ted Williams retired and Yaz led the improbable, amazing “Impossible Dream” club to the brink of a World Series victory. No one enjoys spending their limited disposable income on a product of poor quality. In a retrospective video on the 1967 BoSox, prominent Boston writers said, until 1967, the team had become almost irrelevant in Boston.
Time and again, in sport after sport, Washington fans have proven they will support teams that warrant their attention. Look at this year’s Washington Capitals hockey team. A young, exciting, successful team, they now sell out every game. In 2005, nearly 2.8 million people flocked to the oldest, no frills baseball stadium other than Fenway and Wrigley to see a .500 team. Why? Because they thrilled fans with first place baseball and a pennant race for all but the last two weeks of the season. Every town loves a winner. Every town will eventually turn its back on a perennial loser.
In 2006, more than 2 million fans went to old RFK to see Alfonso Soriano, but little else. That team’s pitching staff was dreadful and Frank Robinson had to work overtime to wring 71 wins out of a bad team.
In 2008, despite having a new stadium, the club decided against pursuing any impact free agents and presented fans with the worst team in baseball. Nevertheless, 2.4 million fans, in a poor economy, showed up at the ballpark even though the media warned of no parking and few, other than Thomas Boswell, had anything good to say about the stadium. Yes, the 2.4 million is the lowest figure for a new ballpark in years, but it still represents more than 2/3 of its total capacity.
In 1969, the team attracted more than 918,000 fans to see the first winning season in Washington since 1952. Many historians, including Washington baseball expert Phil Wood, believe that figure is deflated by 60-75 thousand. Owner Bob Short had an interest in reporting attendance figures as low as possible to support his ultimately successful plan to move the franchise to Texas. If Wood is correct, the Senators attendance nearly matches that of the 109-win Baltimore Orioles. Even the 918,000 figure was the 6th highest total in the American League that season.
In 1971, Senators’ fans, with a horrible, lame duck team and the highest ticket prices in baseball, outdrew Cleveland in attendance. These fans love baseball, know baseball, and care about their team.
Washington’s fans are passionate about baseball, but they are not fools. When the Nationals leadership gives fans a clear signal that they are committed to winning (read – signs an impact free agent) and the team plays hustling, hard-nosed, .500 or better baseball, the fans in this area will show up at Nationals Park, open their wallets, and give their hearts away.