- The Washington Times
Thursday, October 1, 2009

It was Fan Appreciation Day on Wednesday for the final home game of the season at Nationals Park. You can be sure that, even though they may not show it very well sometimes, the Washington Nationals appreciate every fan who shows up - every one of the 1.8 million who were willing to spend money to see another 100-loss team.

The Nationals showed their appreciation with a walk-off, ninth-inning grand slam by Justin Maxwell for a 7-4 victory over the New York Mets. It was a great way to finish a home season devoid of many moments worth appreciating.

The Nationals appreciated the average attendance of 22,435 who came to the ballpark 81 times this year, believe me, because next year 22,435 will look awfully good. A season total of 1.8 million will seem like the good old days.

And so yet another season of baseball in the District comes to a close, worse than the last one, when the Nationals lost 102 games in 2008. And so they are disappearing further and further from view on the sports landscape in this town.

I was in a sports bar last week in Bethesda with 15 televisions all around the place. Nearly every one showed the college football game that night. One had CNN. One had ESPNews. And one had a baseball game on - the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians.

The Nationals were on TV that night, playing the Los Angeles Dodgers. But not in this bar.

The Nationals were not anywhere to be found. Once more, when I asked if one of the TVs could be changed to the Nationals game, no one there knew what channel they were on. Apparently they get very few requests to turn on the Nationals.

The Nationals, in their fifth year of existence, don’t even register a blip on the sports radar here.

A great moment like Justin Maxwell delivered Wednesday barely causes a ripple in a town ready for the Capitals to open the season and turning itself inside-out over the Redskins’ woes.

“It is a problem now,” team president Stan Kasten said. “It will dissipate the better we get. Listen, I can’t pretend we didn’t have two 100-loss seasons. I get it; we have to produce a compelling product. We are going to. We just haven’t done it yet.

“You know my line: We get the attendance we deserve. And I think that given that we have had back-to-back 100-loss seasons, the fact that we have 1.8 million is terrific support from the fans who are long-suffering, waiting for a better day. A better day is coming, and that’s why I know we are going to have extraordinary support once we get our job done on the field, which we haven’t yet done.”

A better day, though, is a long way away, and how will anyone know when that better day comes when there is no one left?

This organization is not on the brink of turning around the Jim Bowden culture that buried D.C. baseball in a deep, dark hole that will take years to dig out of. Let’s say the Nationals wind up with 57 wins to show for 2009. A 10-win improvement would be a dramatic jump. That means about 67 wins next season. Think that will cause a spike in attention and attendance?

Sometime before the start of the season, Kasten has traditionally shared the season-ticket sales for the season. This year he did not, but we got a pretty good idea from some of the sparse crowds at Nationals Park that it is somewhere around 12,000 - down from the high of 22,000 during the inaugural 2005 season at RFK Stadium. There’s no reason not to believe that next year it could fall below 10,000.

This is depressing because it could have been so good; it didn’t have to be this way. Besides the marriage to Bowden, the worst mistake the Lerner ownership made was underestimating the importance of 75 or 80 wins. They presented this plan for the future and simply decided to surrender entire seasons of baseball in a town that hadn’t had baseball for 33 years to do so. They talked about the futility of spending money for a. 500 team when you could invest those resources in future championship contenders - as if you couldn’t do both.

But Kasten said it himself when he called the fans “long-suffering” - far too long-suffering to be asked to suffer through some of the worst baseball in the major leagues yet again, after living with that legacy through much of two Washington Senators incarnations.

It was important to be .500, to put a team on the field that could win 75 or 80 games. It was important for people to believe when they embraced baseball again in this town that it wouldn’t be painful.

I asked Kasten if they made a mistake by not putting a more competitive product on the field from the start.

“I don’t want to talk about the past for a lot of reasons and every decision that we have made and things that went into it,” he said. “All I can deal with is the excitement I feel about next Monday.

“Next Monday is the beginning of the 2010 season for me, and I couldn’t be more excited. We now, I think, have narrowed down our list of things we still need to get - much smaller than where it was a year ago. And I think those things are really attainable - another veteran for the rotation, a couple of more arms in the bullpen, much better defense. I think we can go get those things. We are determined to do it, and I think we will.

What they really need, though, are fans - starting with the 700,000 they have lost since baseball came back to the District five years ago. They missed a nice finish Wednesday.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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