The Nationals begin their 2012 season today at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the second oldest of all of the parks still in use. They’ll return to their own friendly confines at Nationals Park, the fifth youngest of the parks. As the “newest” of the franchises, they still have much to prove, and their first few years in the District have not been as successful as many would have hoped. The battle for the hearts and mind of the DC area hasn’t been an easy one for the team, having lost many locals due to a bitter stadium fight, and others with a lackluster franchise performance.
In the off-season, the Nationals shored up their pitching, and have assembled one of the finer rotations in the National League. Over the last three years, they’ve built a fine minor league system, and revamped the attractions at Nationals Park, to include some innovative options. What the Nationals need to develop this year is their fan base. A trip to Verizon Center this past weekend would have revealed what DC’s fans can do when they’re excited and wound up, and everyone who was there said it was the loudest game they’d heard in some time. The question is: can the Nats engender that sort of loyalty in the fan base this season?
On June 8th, 2010, the Nationals, and their fans, got to experience that raw electricity first hand, when they sent Stephen Strasburg to the mound. The roar of the crowd that night was nothing that they’d heard before, or since. A sold-out crowd, on their feet, and setting the decibel meter on fire with every strikeout. That playoff atmosphere is something the Nationals need to develop this year, as they’ve developed their minor-league system, their starting rotation, and their ballpark ambience.
That development process is going to require the coordination of the Nationals’ two separate but rarely equal, arms: baseball operations, lead by Mike Rizzo, and stadium operations, lead by Andy Feffer. Each group has made strides separately to improve the health of the franchise, but at times there have been disconnects between the sides that have lead to fan frustration. A good ballpark without a good team is a casual environment that doesn’t engender the excitement of the fan, while a good team with a frustrating fan experience is left begging for attendance and short on the bottom line.
While the Spring has been marred with injuries so far, especially a nagging shoulder problem for slugger Michael Morse, there have been some positive developments. Jayson Werth is desperate to leave 2011 behind in his wake, and his plate appearances in Viera were no small proof that he’s working hard to do just that. Werth had some towering drives off spring pitching, including one that travelled nearly 500 feet to dent the hood of his own truck parked beyond the tiki hut in left field. Couple that with a healthy and spry Ryan Zimmerman, and the Nats will have some power at the middle of their order.
The Nationals need to hit on all cylinders this season: on the field, at the plate, out of the bullpen, and in the stands. Can they do it? Well, they’ve shown flashes of brilliance, and if they can kickstart their season with an impressive April, by June they might just be drawing the crowds they need to fuel the rest of their season. If they stall out early, or blow it at the turnstiles, we might just be looking at another bad mid-market year with a further disillusioned fan base.
While 2012 may not be the year the Nationals make the playoffs (my personal predictions have them at about 86 wins, and in 3rd in the NL East, which could be good enough for the new 5th slot in the NL Wild Card), it is a make or break year in the eyes of the fan base. With six straight years of losing records and one .500 season since arriving from Montreal, there’s been very little to be excited about as a fan. 640 losses in seven seasons has been a pretty difficult thing for even the diehard to love. A Nationals team that can make a push for the post-season could spark in NatsTown the sort of passion a team in the hunt for a championship in another year, which is just what this success-starved city needs.