Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Politics and baseball in the nation’s capital…Part II

by Jeremy Bird

In my first column of the year, I wrote that it would be a long summer for Washington Nationals fans. Today, the team is 16 games below .500, and I hate to write an “I told you so” column. I guess it is not like I was some sort of prophet. Most people who know anything about baseball know you aren’t going to win many games with no real ace pitcher, Jose Guillen as your clean up hitter and Royce Clayton as your opening day starting shortstop.

Still, I didn’t think it would be this bad. As of Tuesday, the team’s ERA ranks 27th in MLB at 4.90. The Nationals are 25th in the majors in hitting with a team average of .259. The team is 26th in RBIs. In fact, the only offensive category in which the team ranks in the top 10 is in strikeouts.

At least they play good defense, right? Nope. 28th in the league in that category as well.

For a team that opened their new DC act with an impressive 81-81 record in 2005, the second stanza has been more than a bust. True, injuries have made things worse. Pitchers Luis Ayala, John Patterson, Ryan Drese, Brian Lawrence, Pedro Astacio, Zach Day and Joey Eischen have missed 400 games combined.

All that aside, the problem with the Nationals is the same problem with DC in general – too much politics and not enough problem-solving and hope. The political infighting between the city’s Mayor and City Council left the team ownerless and unable to attract new talent in the offseason. The ownerless Nationals failed to attract fans as well. The team sold 5,000 fewer season tickets this season. Attendance has dropped nearly 5,000 per game at RFK. (Take away the 145,000 who came to the three-game Yankees series and that figure would be worse).

Some commentators claim that DC fans should be ashamed of the drop in attendance. I am one of those fans. But, I am not ashamed. I have gone to more games in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Colorado while traveling than I have in DC. Frankly, there is not much to see. After driving up to Philly for a game, it is sort of depressing to go to a Nats game. The stadium is a disaster, Soriano only bats four times a game and the pitching is atrocious. Can you say Kansas Cityesque?

But, enough DC cynicism. The future could be getting a lot brighter in DC (and not just because Bush’s poll numbers are dropping). This week marked the departure of the outgoing Nationals President Tony Tavares and the beginning of a new era. The team’s new owner, Theodore N. Lerner, and President Stan Kasten have taken over the ball club this month.

One of Kasten’s first pledges to the fans has been to decrease ticket prices for next season. Not a bad start. His second move involved an eight-player trade that brought in some new talent, including Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez (no All-Star shortstop but, hey, we are comparing the guy to Royce Clayton so he looks like a Hall of Famer right now). Kasten even says they’ll improve the food, music, aesthetics and scoreboards at RFK. Drop the beer prices and you’ll be a legend already my man.

The new owners and the city continue the political wrangling around parking at the new stadium and other issues. Some things will never change.

But, the new stadium will be ready around ’08. With more solid trades in the second half of this year and a focus on building young talent and spending some offseason money, some things will change in the near future.

Soriano now says he will stay. Hope is in the air in DC once again.

Jeremy's column, "Bird's Eye View", appears alternate Tuesdays

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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine