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The Vote Is In

April 25, 2005
April 25, 2005

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April 25, 2005

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The Vote Is In

And it's a resounding yea as Washington, D.C., falls in love with the Nationals, who are likely to succeed where the Senators twice failed

After the snipers had come down from the rooftop, the bomb-sniffing dogs had finished with Livan Hernandez's blue Ferrari, the beefy Secret Service agent disguised as a ballplayer in the dugout had changed back into street clothes and the leader of the free world had taken his bulletproof vest and gone home--just down the street, mind you--the Washington Nationals became just another baseball team. Oh the happiness the players and the city derived from what a former first fan, President Warren Harding, famously called normalcy.

This is an article from the April 25, 2005 issue Original Layout

"It'll be nice to show up and not be strip-searched," Nationals reliever Joey Eischen said after Washington's 5-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks in last Thursday night's rollicking home opener. Then, more seriously, Eischen smiled and said, "We're home. This is home."

The marriage between the Nationals--né Montreal Expos, who were best known in recent years for traveling (and sometimes playing) like Ringling Brothers--and Washington, best known for being first in war, first in peace and last in the league, is a match made in personal-ad heaven.

Single, thirtysomething, divorced baseball team seeks long-term relationship. Turn-ons: outdoors, financial security, cable TV. Turn-offs: small gatherings, clipping coupons, international travel.

Lovelorn Washington, already a two-time loser at the national pastime, with one winning baseball team in the past 52 years (including no franchise whatsoever for the last 34), fell hard and fast. In December the District sealed the engagement by agreeing to spend more than $500 million in public money for a ballpark that is planned to open in 2008 on what is now desolate waterfront property. Since then everyone from politicians to pundits to exurbanites have been scarfing up tickets at a rate that has the Nationals topping 2.5 million in attendance this year and outdrawing their backyard rivals, the Baltimore Orioles. The rush for tickets figures to pick up if the Nats, who were 8-4 and atop the National League East following Sunday's 7-3 win over the Diamondbacks, keep winning.

Unlike its last failure with the expansion Senators, who never attracted even one million fans in any of their 11 seasons, the District has a competitive team and the resources to be a moneyed player at the big league baccarat table. No joke, this time it's for real. Privately, Major League Baseball officials believe that the Nationals have the potential to be among the game's top 10 revenue-generating franchises within four years--bigger even than the Orioles, about 40 miles to the northeast.

"I expect both of them to be payers into the revenue-sharing system," commissioner Bud Selig said last Friday. "And that's certainly one definition of a success."

Dick Bosman, a former Senators pitcher and Orioles pitching coach, said before Thursday's pregame festivities, "Oh, yes, it can be bigger and better than Baltimore. This is the pot at the end of the rainbow."

Nine prospective ownership groups have paid $100,000 in application fees in hopes of buying the club from MLB. The franchise is expected to fetch at least triple the $120 million that the other 29 owners paid for it 38 months ago; those owners will divide the profits. Selig said he hopes to finalize a buyer "by midsummer," though he acknowledged that the sport's timetables on such matters have been infamously elastic. Indeed, general manager Jim Bowden was signed to a contract last winter that expires on April 30; MLB thought at the time that new ownership would be in place by then.

The Nationals are in demand largely because the Washington area bares little resemblance to what it was on Sept. 30, 1971. That night the last game in Senators history ended in a forfeit after hundreds of souvenir-seeking fans, knowing that owner Bob Short was moving the team to Texas, stormed the RFK Stadium field during the final inning. Since then the population of the Washington area has surged from 3.3 million to 5.9 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, ranking it fifth among Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the nation. The Washington MSA has a population twice the size of the Baltimore MSA and ranks fourth in the U.S. in per capita income. More important, only one MSA with a major league team, San Francisco, has a more affluent population base.

"The disposable income in this market is pretty astounding," says Nationals president Tony Tavares. "All you have to do is look at the housing prices. Everything is hugely expensive. It rivals New York City and San Francisco."

As families migrated to the suburbs, the District itself lost about 25% of its population since the Senators left. The area's spending power is generated by huge private-sector growth in the surrounding counties of Northern Virginia and southwestern Maryland. The local economy relies far less on government jobs and more on private government support industries, such as defense contractors, than it did in 1971.

The Nationals have a season-ticket base of about 22,000, fifth-largest in the majors, according to Bowden. They have already sold about 2 million tickets for their inaugural season--more than the second edition of the Senators (1961-71) sold in their first four years combined. RFK, a 1960s multipurpose ballpark slapped thick with new makeup, is easily accessible by the Metro, a subway system with tentacles into the suburbs that was linked to RFK in 1977, six years after the Senators left. The stadium may have a shabby, retro look that brings back memories--absolutely none of them historically significant--for Senators fans, but it lacks the luxury-box revenues that help drive the modern game.

The Nationals expect their 41,000-seat ballpark on the Anacostia River to help bring them into the financial neighborhood of the National League East--rival Atlanta Braves, New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies. The city intends to veer from the well-traveled path of redbrick, green-seated retro parks with a gleaming structure that is uniquely Washington, perhaps featuring white marble, stone, glass, columns, rotundas and other elements of the neoclassical and Georgian architecture around the city. The iconic dome of the U.S. Capitol, less than a mile away, will loom in clear view beyond leftfield.

"We played the Phillies to open the season, and they have a payroll about $50 million more than ours," said Bowden, who's making do with a $48 million payroll this year, up from $41 million in 2004. "That's tough. If you're not within 10, 15 million dollars of your competitors, it becomes very tough. I think in the future we should be able to have roughly the same kind of payroll as other teams in the East."

The team's annual revenue from local television broadcasts, which were nonexistent in Montreal, will be between $21 million and $25 million under a deal MLB cut to mollify Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who owns the baseball broadcast rights in the Baltimore-D.C. area and could have threatened a lawsuit claiming the relocation of the Expos to D.C. would harm his franchise. Angelos will own and operate the regional sports network that will carry Nationals and Orioles games, a tremendous inventory of programming that could bring a windfall of profits. The Nationals, with their fixed fee from the network, will not benefit from its growth. In a co-bylined op-ed piece in The Washington Post last week, Washington mayor Anthony A. Williams and District Council member Jack Evans nevertheless praised the Nationals' TV take as better than that of 17 other clubs.

As was evident last Thursday, the rivalry between the Nationals and the Orioles is likely to be intense on and off the field. When a large group of fans held to Baltimore tradition and belted out a loud "O!" during the last stanza of the national anthem, an even larger group shouted them down with boos. One fan hung a banner in the upper deck that read, DEAR ANGELOS, U STINK. SIGNED, EVERYONE.

The two clubs are likely to fight over a swath of fans and revenues that could go either way. "If an impact shows up, it will likely be in ticket revenues and [luxury] box sales," Tavares says. "I know that's what [Angelos] fears. I have every confidence that this is a win-win for all fans. But there will be some impact [on the Orioles]. I hope for Peter's sake he isn't hurt too badly."

For now, the Nationals can bask in their flavor-of-the-month popularity, an effect that tends to wear off with new clubs. Three of the past four expansion teams suffered double-digit drops in per-game attendance in their second seasons: the Diamondbacks (16%), the Florida Marlins (13%) and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (38%). (The Colorado Rockies' second-year attendance increased by 3%.) But Washington can add to its fan base by playing the kind of scrappy, winning baseball the town hasn't seen for generations.

On Thursday, for instance, after President Bush had opened the new era with a high, hard one from the pitching rubber, the Nationals prevailed primarily because a righthander who had fled oppression in Cuba (Hernandez) threw one-hit ball into the ninth inning and a Mexican national without U.S. voting privileges (Vinny Castilla) smacked a double, a triple and a home run. What a country! The 45,596 fans welcomed their Nats with cheers that made the decks of the old stadium shimmy. Most of the former vagabond Expos had never experienced anything like it.

"Watching them cheer, I got goose bumps," closer Chad Cordero said.

"That was something to see, something I'll never forget," outfielder Ryan Church said. "It was like a World Series."

Though the original Senators, who fled to Minnesota in 1961, played in three World Series (1924, '25 and '33, winning the first), the expansion Senators that followed provided all too few moments of even modest glory. Asked why baseball didn't work in D.C. the last time, Jim Woolsey, 68, a Nats fan at last week's home opener, replied, "The team stunk. Simple as that."

"It's like, how many times are you going to watch a horses--- movie?" says Nats coach Tom McCraw, a '71 Senator. "Maybe twice. Once to check it out and another time when a relative comes to town and you need something to do. After that? Forget it. That's what it was like with the Senators."

Bosman, pressed for the seminal moment in expansion Senators history, recalls Sept. 29, 1969, at RFK. "Last series of the year, and we need a sweep for third place, which was a big deal," he says. "[Manager] Ted Williams brings the lineup out to home plate, and the crowd gives him a standing O. It was the closest I ever saw him come to tipping his cap." There were all of 7,436 people at the game that night, or about as many as were in line for hot dogs at RFK last Thursday. The Senators lost 8-5 and finished in fourth place with 86 wins.

There hasn't been an honest-to-goodness pennant race in D.C. since 1945. Last Thursday, as Church cradled the last out, a fly ball, for the first-place Nats at 9:39 p.m. under a clear, black sky that went on forever, anything seemed possible in the center of the free world, even the sweetness of a playoff chase. For though there was still familiarity in the smells, sounds and rhythm of the game 34 years later, baseball in Washington never before looked quite like this--not this new, not this dreamy. ■

Unlike its last failure with the Senators, who never attracted even one million fans in any of their 11 seasons, THE DISTRICT HAS A COMPETITIVE TEAM and the resources to be a moneyed player at the big league baccarat table. No joke, this time it's for real.
COLOR PHOTOMitchell LaytonHOUSEWARMING Hernandez threw the Nats' first home pitch, before a crowd of 45,596 at RFK.COLOR PHOTOMitchell LaytonCOLOR PHOTOJAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IMAGESBELTWAY BOMBERS Castilla and Jose Guillen scored on Nick Johnson's triple during a six-run rally that buried Arizona on Sunday.