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how not to run a baseball team
learning from the nationals' mistakes
by michelle von euw

First, take a city that’s been teased with the possibility of baseball happiness for literally decades, and promise them a team. The city’s been used before; it's been the Other Woman for franchises from Houston to San Diego, a pawn in a blackmail game in order to gain large and modern stadiums full of luxury boxes funded with taxpayer money.

To this city, add a franchise that’s been picked dry of its talent, names like Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Moises Alou, Larry Walker, Orlando Cabrera moving onto other teams, as if the Expos were a superstore for premium baseball players. A team that’s languishing in Canada, in a stadium that saw its glory days vanish with Saturday Night Fever, without ownership, without much fan or municipal support, slumping into its fourth decade of existence, as winless as ever.

It’s a match not made in heaven, not even in Iowa, to quote Shoeless Joe by way of W.P. Kinsella, but in some sort of baseball purgatory, and at the start, the partnership is mired in complications, but the new fans are hopeful, the future looks promising, and everyone is on their best behavior, everyone vows to try their hardest to make it work.

And at first, it does.

There are problems, there are always problems, many of them caused by the cantankerous owner of the American League team some 40 miles to the north who has long claimed that area cannot support two franchises. (This argument, it should be noted, did not keep the city of Baltimore from snatching a football team in the ‘90s.) A louder, more pressing issue than the production of tee-shirts that say things like, “Washingtonian by birth, Orioles fan by choice” is the city leaders’ reluctance to sink so much public money into the glorious new stadium that’s been promised to the new baseball club.

For the town, like many others, is a commuter town, with most of the people who work and play in Washington, D.C. living beyond its borders. But unlike New York or Philadelphia or any other U.S. city with sprawling suburbs, D.C. doesn’t have the right to tax any of the residents who suck up many of their services, and the grand majority of them pay zero point zero percent of their income taxes to the city in which they earn it. It’s a complicated city, with complicated problems entirely unique to its status as our nation’s capital, which some people –- namely, those in Congress –- think is an honor that should trump, say, voting rights. All this means is that money in this city is even harder to come by, and to make the choice to build a ballpark means less money for other services, like schools and libraries and police.

For the first few seasons, until the city can provide the new ballpark, put the team in an even older stadium than the one left behind in Montreal in a run-down, economically depressed area of D.C. that was ditched for the suburbs several years prior by the city’s football team, bringing all hopes of urban revival with it.

Despite all of the above, however, the fans still come, and the first season is borderline magical, as people thirsty for baseball come to the old stadium in droves. Red and blue Nats hats are spotted everywhere in this town, and despite lowered expectations, the team actually competes, and the fans are driven crazy by the idea of the playoffs coming back to Washington, D.C.

Take all of this joy, all of this promise, all of this potential, and absolutely piss it away with a series of bad decisions. Sell the team to an ownership group intent on achieving a bottom line, and not much else. Watch as the old ghosts of Montreal come back to haunt the Nationals in their second and third season, as the team’s few bright stars leave town, the fans’ brand new jerseys -– decorated with names like Wilkerson, Soriano, Vidro, Schneider, Guillen, Church -- made instantly worthless.

Field a new team of the most inexpensive players money can buy, most of them too green to win more games than the Kansas City Royals. Say “Rebuild” but really mean, “Too Cheap to Contend.”

The new players, the ones you’ve replaced the brand names with, keep locked inside your ballpark, away from the fans and the community. While every other team works hard to get the faces of their franchise in public eye –- the team 40 miles north even has a constant stream of pitchers appearing in area Chik-Fil-As –- the Nats’ publicity department works undertime keeping their on- and off- season appearances to the bare minimum.

Handcuff the city to paying for the increasing costs of the new stadium, to the tune of approximately $600 million, while promising fans that it will be a temple to modern sport, complete with panoramic views of the city’s other monuments, marble everywhere. Brag that it’ll take the Camden Yards model, and turn it on its head, giving an entirely new ballpark experience.

Once again, fall short of your promises. Open a ballpark that’s certainly nice, but underwhelming. Block those fantastic views of the Capitol Dome with a string of parking garages. Ruin the last shreds of goodwill left with the city by demanding $100,000 a day for incomplete office space within the ballpark -– never mind the fact that Washington is still letting you operate out of your old stadium, rent-free, and completed all work on the ballpark itself in record time so you could begin collecting their citizens’ hard-earned cash.

Ignore your fanbase. Instead of cultivating the college students, the underpaid interns, the young families and couples who weigh a night at the ballpark against a trip to the movies, rope off a section of $300 seats around home plate. Begin by holding tickets to the opening game hostage from average fans; horde them away in hopes of luring people into paying for 80 other games as well, and refuse to release them until the day of the game itself, a cold and rainy March evening.

They’ll come, the fans will still come, and they’ll pack the upper bowl of the stadium, the $20 and $18 and $10 seats, and there they will still stay, even though there are entire sections in the lower seats left open. Fans don’t want to pay premium prices -- $50, $100, even $325 for a team this bad in a ballpark this average -- and you'll adjust to this by training your employees to be bulldogs. They will guard your precious empty outfield seats (anywhere else these would be called “bleachers”) from fans who try to grab a different view of the ballpark in the eighth inning, they will block the covered -– but still empty –- sections from fans with more expensive tickets during a driving rain storm, they will growl at requests for photographs.

Be rude. Be cheap. Be unbearably stubborn off the field, and horrifically bad on the field, and who knows? One day, you may get to move somewhere like Oklahoma City or Las Vegas.


Originally from Boston, Michelle is a writer, editor, instructor, obsessive sports fan, loud talker, quick laugher, new mom, and chances are, she watches more television than you do. Follow her on Twitter at michellevoneuw

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