As the gloaming of the post Adam Dunn era begins to envelop the city that once embraced him, I am somewhat struck at the gloom and doom that is being predicted for both the team and the fans of the Washington Nationals.
Mark Zuckerman adroitly put those fears into words this morning when he wrote, “Plenty of fans have been insisting they wouldn't renew their season tickets if the Nats didn't re-sign Dunn. How many will actually stick to their word and follow through? We'll see, though with no Dunn and no Stephen Strasburg for the majority of 2011, there sure doesn't figure to be a lot of buzz on South Capitol Street.
And there doesn't figure to be a ton of optimism inside the home clubhouse among players who absolutely adored Dunn, but more importantly want to feel like this organization is moving closer to realizing actual success.”
Of course, Mark isn’t saying that fans are going to walk away, never to return. And he isn’t suggesting that current players have given up hope for any real future for the team.
He is simply reporting what he’s seeing.
Now let me report what I have seen.
After the Washington Senators left town, I became an Atlanta Braves fan (though for the life of me I don’t understand why). People forget that they were even worse than the Senators, and they were worse for a much longer period of time.
For 16 seasons—from 1975 through 1990—the Braves had a winning season exactly twice, in 1982 and 1983. In 1975, attendance was second-worst in the National League and in 1990 they were dead last when only 980,000 fans came to Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium.
The only constant during that period was star slugger Dale Murphy, who averaged .267-32-96 for the moribund Braves. But in 1990, Murphy was a couple of years older than Dunn is now, and the Braves traded him to their division rival Philadelphia Phillies.
Forlorn fans vowed never to watch a game again. They had enough of losing and now their only real slugger was gone. Reporters feared that without Murphy—the face of the franchise—the team would stop teetering near baseball’s abyss and fall into it.
A year later, the Atlanta Braves won 94 games and went to the World Series. Without Dale Murphy, and after two decades of losing, 2.1 million fans did the tomahawk chop at Fulton County Stadium, fourth best in the league.
In 1992, the Braves returned to the World Series and drew more than three million fans, besting the rest of the league.
The rest, as they say, is history.
I lived in Seattle in the early 1980’s and the Mariners were a bad team with cheap ownership playing in the worst park I have ever seen.
From 1977 through 1995, covering 19 seasons, the Seattle Mariners had a winning season exactly twice. In 1979, they were dead last in attendance. In 1995, they drew barely a million to the Kingdome, ninth best in the league.
For years, the Mariners’ amateur draft policy was one of signability. Tremendous talent was left on the board in favor of players willing to take a smaller check. In 1979, the Mariners had the No. 1 pick in the draft and chose Al Chambers, a player that several teams had not even scouted and a couple had never heard of.
This led to a severe case of baseball apathy in Seattle. With so many outdoor activities to enjoy in the region, no one wanted to spend three hours in a concrete cavern watching a bad team play bad baseball.
Reporters worried out loud that good players would never want to come to Seattle. In 1982, the Mariners traded top reliever Bill Caudill to the Yankees for prize prospect Gene Nelson, who had dominated the Florida State League the previous year, winning 20 games with an ERA under 2.00. Nelson whined and complained about the trade, saying that he didn’t want to play baseball in Seattle.
But in 1996, a few of their prospects matured and the Mariners became a winner. They drew 2.7 million, fourth best in the American League. In 1997, they won 90 games for the first time and drew more than three million fans.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Braves’ fans suffered for 16 years before they were able to support a winner and support they did. Mariners’ fans had to wait even longer before winning baseball came to Seattle, but once it did, they came out to the Kingdome in droves.
Currently, Washington Nationals’ fans have had to endure five losing seasons. To match the Mariners' mark for futility, Washington would have to wait until the 2026 season before playoff baseball would come to Nationals Park.
That would be in Ryan Zimmerman’s 20th season.
Since the days of the St. Louis Browns and Philadelphia Athletics, fans swear that they’ll stop supporting their losing team, and yet tickets become impossible to find when their team starts to win.
In 2003, the Detroit Tigers won just 43 games and drew just 1.3 million fans. Three seasons later, they more than doubled their wins and doubled their attendance as well.
And in 1968, the Washington Senators won 65 games and finished dead last in American League attendance, drawing just 546,000 fans. A year later, they won 21 more games and almost doubled their attendance.
We say things when we are frustrated and Nationals fans are no exception. When things don’t go right, we swear we’ll never watch another game. And when a marquee player like Adam Dunn isn’t re-signed, we really really won’t ever watch another game.
Players like Ryan Zimmerman grumble about the team’s ability to field a winner and offer up veiled threats about their long-term desire to remain with the team.
Then a couple of free agent signings occur, along with a trade or two. A few of the kids suddenly mature, and the Nationals will win 90 games and make the playoffs.
Suddenly, 37,000 fans will pack the park every night and swear they supported the team even when they were losers. Ryan Zimmerman will tell reporters how great it is to have a first baseman who saves him six or seven errors every year.
It’s going to happen. It always has. It always will. The only question is when.
When it happens, these five years of futility will be quickly forgotten, just as it happened in Atlanta, and just as it happened in Seattle.
That’s how baseball works.