I was eight years old when I attended my first Senators baseball game. It’s not like I wanted to or anything. But I was a fan of Channel Five’s “Countdown Carnival” with Bill Gormley, and he asked me—through the television of course—to have a carnival for muscular dystrophy. We didn’t get anything for doing it and we didn’t get to keep the money.
But we did get tickets to Senators games. Lots and lots of tickets. And so I went.
We went on a hot July day in 1964 and I had to sit through a double header against the Baltimore Orioles. It was my first visit to D.C. Stadium and I was surprised to see so many seats and so few people filling them.
The Senators lost both games, and looked pretty bad doing it. Baltimore had players like Boog Powell and Brooks Robinson and the Senators had Buster Narum and Steve Ridzik.
It turned out that most of the 8,000 fans that day came clutching “Countdown Carnival” coupons and really weren’t interested in the game. In the late innings, an Oriole player fouled a pitch into the deep right field stands. It ricocheted around for a moment before settling on top of one of the seats.
It took a minute or two for a kid to causally walk over and pick it up.
After the second game, my brother propped his feet up against the seat in front of him and mopped his brow with a napkin. He looked almost sullen.
He gazed up into the sky and said, “I wonder what it would be like in this town if we had a real baseball team?”
Forty-five years later, my brother’s question still rings true. What would happen in this town if the Washington Nationals were a success on the field?
To be sure, Washington is not a “sports-first” town like Boston or New York. Certainly, we love our sports, but not above all else. But with the weight of the world on the city’s shoulders, children’s games sometimes just aren’t taken seriously.
But outside of the Washington Redskins—and I can’t for the life of me understand why they are governed by a separate set of rules—Washington teams have to win and win big to fill the city’s arenas and stadiums.
After three straight first place finishes, the Baltimore Bullets moved to Washington in 1973 in hopes of larger crowds and bigger paydays. Though they continued to win division crowns in Washington and they drew bigger crowds, they were just ninth in attendance in an 18-team league.
For the decade, the Bullets averaged a second-place finish and a 10th-place attendance mark. It got worse in the 1980s and 1990s. The MCI Center brought back some fans for a while but the team’s attendance again faded into embarrassment.
Sure, Michael Jordan helped the Wizards to a second and third place attendance mark, but things again returned to normal. They were 21st out of 30 teams last season.
The Capitals' fortunes aren’t much different. Over the years, the team has averaged about 15,000 fans per game which places them in the lower third of the league.
In their first six seasons in Washington, the expansion Senators had an average finish of ninth place (out of 10) and was ninth in attendance over that period. In 1967, they finished eighth and saw their attendance jump to sixth.
After a last place finish in 1968—they also finished last in attendance—the Senators won 86 games the next season and drew 916,000 fans, finishing sixth in attendance.
They were bottom feeders in both categories in their last two years in Washington.
I think we can make some pretty accurate assumptions based on these numbers.
First, the city will provide enough support—in good times and bad—to keep the Nationals a viable Major League franchise. Second, their attendance will be directly proportionate to how well the team is doing.
The Phillies and Mets have engines that can easily idle in the $100 million range. The Braves—thanks to decades of quality management—are able to reach the same level of success with $10 or $15 million less per season.
The Nationals, for now, will probably have a payroll ceiling in the low $80 million range with the ability to surpass it now and then for “that one last piece of the championship puzzle.”
Last season, the Nationals drew 1.8 million fans, about 22,000 per game. That’s about 31,000 per win. The Atlanta Braves have about the same size population to draw from and averaged 28,000 fans per win in 2009.
So if we use 30,000 fans per win in a season, the Nationals might expect the following attendance:
60 wins: 1,800,000
70 wins: 2,100,000
80 wins: 2,400,000
90 wins: 2,700,000
100 wins: 3,000,000
As much as we might like, the Nationals are never going to draw more than three million fans in a season as the Mets and Phillies continually do. They can’t afford to make mistakes and just say, “Oh well,” and move on.
When the Nationals sign players like Austin Kearns to $24 million contracts, it keeps the team from signing someone else who can really help the team.
Once Kearns’ contract came off the books, they Nationals signed all-star pitcher Jason Marquis for about the same amount of money.
When the next “can’t miss” prospect comes along—someone like Stephen Strasburg—the Nationals will be able to pony-up and spend the money. But be clear: This won’t happen often.
The Nationals can one day be a championship caliber team. But they must be better than their Eastern Division rivals in almost every area to get there.
They must make personnel decisions as well as the Marlins. They have to produce a consistently good team year in and year out like the Braves. They have to spend like drunken sailors when the situation calls for it, like the Mets.
And they have to be able to retain their stars like the Phillies.
With Mike Rizzo and Stan Kasten running things, all of those goals are easily within reach. The Lerner’s pockets are deep enough, the new ballpark is good enough, and the city they play in is certainly big enough.
Everything has to go well from here on out for the Nationals to win. The question is, will it?
I think that, yes, it will.