- The Washington Times
Thursday, June 26, 2008

Stan Kasten has seen pretty much everything in baseball.

As president of the Atlanta Braves from 1986 to 2003, he presided over some bad teams and some good teams. With the opening of Turner Field in 1997, he also was part of the ballpark boom that has energized baseball the past 16 years.

The Braves did well in that first season in their new home, going 101-61 and drawing 3.5 million fans. The fans were so pleased they drew 3.4 million the following year.

This year, Kasten, now the president of the Washington Nationals, finally is experiencing the opposite: a team that opened a new ballpark and seems destined to lose 100 games in the same season.

In fact, the Nationals are on pace to become the worst team in recent history to play in a new ballpark.

Since Camden Yards kicked off the new ballpark era in 1992, eight of the 16 new facilities were home to teams with losing records in their first seasons there.

The worst of the bunch were the Pittsburgh Pirates, who opened PNC Park in 2001 with a record of 62-100. They drew just 2.5 million fans. The next year, only 2.3 million returned to a ballpark that is among the best of the new generation.

Washington is on pace for a 61-101 record, which would give the Nationals the worst opening season for a new ballpark in the Camden Yards era. And along with that, the Nationals are on pace to draw less than Pittsburgh did in its first year at PNC Park with a turnstile projection of 2.4 million.

If Pittsburgh is any indication, the Nationals can expect a drop next year.

Kasten and the Lerner family, no matter how they try to spin it, can’t claim these growing pains were expected - that all this is part of the master plan. Kasten may have seen a lot in baseball, but he has never been part of this - a team setting the standard for box-office failure in a new ballpark.

That is part of the problem. The decision-makers here never gave enough weight to the notion that Washington is not a new baseball market. It was a wounded market that had been without the game for 33 years and had to survive on the table scraps provided by the Baltimore Orioles.

Washington was a unique situation. While ownership was faced with a massive reconstruction project after Major League Baseball decimated the former Montreal Expos franchise, it didn’t take immediate measures to heal the wounds first.

For those who insisted spending money to be competitive was a waste without any chance to play postseason baseball, how are you enjoying watching this season so far?

And can you live with it another year? There is not much help on the immediate horizon in the Nationals’ farm system. They can’t even go with the notion of bringing the kids up and letting the kids play. Save for Class AAA pitchers Garrett Mock and Collin Balester, there’s no one to bring up - at least not unless they want bypass two levels of their player development system and field a Carolina League squad.

Pete Orr may be a breath of fresh air, but he is 29 years old and won’t seem so fresh if the Nationals have to put him out there every day.

Kasten said the Nationals plan on building the team using all available tools, including free agency. Unless they have absolutely no shame or vision, the Nationals’ ownership will have to open the vault this offseason and spend some money. They will need infielders, outfielders and pitchers.

But free agency is not one-sided. The Nationals may be willing to spend some money, but will anyone want to come play here? After seeing the commitment so far by the Nationals’ ownership, will Orlando Hudson or Rafael Furcal be willing to come here over other options? Will the Nationals, like the late Syd Thrift during his time with the Orioles, find they are stuck with Confederate money and empty seats?

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.