by Frank Barone
Baseball returned April 14th to the Nationâ€™s capital for the first time since 1971. The Washington Nationals will play the next three years in RFK stadium, helped by a $10 million-dollar facelift, then move to a brand new stadium in 2008. Whether the franchise can survive this time in Washington is the big question, especially since this is the fourth try at Major League Baseball there, dating originally back to 1899. In 1899 the original Nationals became victims of a National League downsizing fom 12 to 8 teams.
Two years later the American League formed and Washington was one of the teams added. They played under the Nationals name until 1957, when the franchise officially became the Senators. In 1961 an agreement was reached among the baseball owners to allow the team to move to Minnesota, when they became the Twins, with Washington getting an expansion team the next year to again be known as the Senators. They played there over the next decade until Bob Short, the owner, relocated them to Texas as the Texas Rangers in 1972. The Washington Senators played their last game at RFK stadium on Sept. 30 1971.
Baseball owners approved the relocation of the Montreal Expos officially in December, 2004, which has given this franchise only four months before opening here in April to get the team and logistics in place.
There are many obstacles, both on the field and off, for the new team in Washington. The team is still owned by the other 29 major league franchises,and The Nationals are working under a budget of approximately $50 million dollars, which is still more than 20% higher than they spent last year in Montreal.
Former Reds GM Jim Bowden was hired as interim general manager in February. He moved aggressively in trading for Jose Guillen from the Angels and signing free agents Vinny Castilla to play third base and Christian Guzman for shortstop. Livan Hernandez is the ace of the pitching staff â€“-he is a dependanble anchor to the rotation and is also an innings-eater, which will be big for a team short on bullpen help. After him, unfortunately, there is little else. Last season, Montrealâ€™s starters were tenth in National League ERA and its bullpen converted just 63% of its chances.
There are reasons, however, to think that baseball in Washington is finally here to stay. The demographics are solid. The surrounding metropolitan area is the sixth largest market in the United States with a great amount of disposable income. The latest box office figures available show that 22,000 season tickets have been sold. This compares to a franchise that drew an average of only 9,356 fans for their home games last year in Montreal and San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 2001 the team based solely in Montreal averaged a meager 7,935 fans per game.
When the Nationals’s first souvenir store opened at RFK stadium in December, 2004, the first week of sales topped $100,000. According to George Will, the nationally known syndicate columnist and baseball author, The D.C. area is much different from when the Senators left in 1972. Will is also one of those 22,000 season ticket holders for the coming National season. In his words, itâ€™s a much larger, more cosmopolitan city and less of a single industry metropolis.
For their April 3rd exhibition game vs. the Mets, in 45 degree weather with a 30 M.P.H. wind, 25,453 fans showed up for a meaningless game at RFK. If the Nationals can draw those same 25,453 fans starting April 14th, Washington baseball is definitely here for good. This is one baseball fan rooting for that to happen.