Mischa Nachtigal. 16th July, 2008 - 8:33 pm
9000. That?s the average number of households watching the Nationals this season. Their 0.39 rating on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) is down 43% from last season?s totals. Yes, the Nats have had a number of injuries to their marquee players, but the sad fact of the matter remains that no one among the wounded (except possibly Ryan Zimmerman) are worthy of even being considered ?marquee.? Do the names of Nick Johnson, Paul ?Roids-Pusher? LoDuca, and Austin Kearns scare any pitcher at this point in their careers?
The team?s poor play has the Nats drawing only an average paid attendance of 29,000 fans to their brand new stadium. Having been to a few games this summer, I can personally say the Nats are lucky when the number of fans who actually show up tops 15,000. But who can blame them? When Christian Guzman is your all-star, you know there?s not much going for your team. Not to mention that the outer fa?ade of the publically funded Nationals Park is one of the most unattractive architectural designs in sports history. Sure, the sightlines are pretty neat, but there?s been a surprising amount of bad luck emanating from Nationals Park.
On July 12th, a fan was killed en route to the ballpark when the top-down bus ? provided courtesy of the team as a shuttle between RFK and the new park ? he was riding on went under the 11th Street overpass, and his head struck against the concrete. This is obviously not the team?s fault, but it?s more than a bit eerie. Another story that broke just this week details a pending federal investigation into the 2006 signing of shortstop Esmailyn Gonz?lez, then a 16-year-old Dominican project. General Manager Jim Bowden is the highest-ranking front office official in the FBI?s case. Bowden and Jose Rijo (the Nats? top Dominican scout) may not have committed any illegality, but they still signed a ballplayer who is, according to other scouts, far short of the five-tool star the Nats wish he?d become. Bowden also reportedly signed Gonz?lez for $1.4 million, which is double what the Texas Rangers had offered. Having Pope Benedict conduct mass at the stadium this spring has clearly brought no sanctity of any form to Nationals Park.
Bowden has always been a flashy sort of GM definitely not cut from the moneyball frame. He constantly searches for five-tool outfielders on the cheap, but none of them have turned out well. One would think that if Willy Mo Pena or Austin Kearns really were middle-of-the-order hitters, they?d have made it by now. Bowden?s itchy trade finger has pulled some decent value deals, but for every gem he makes (Alfonso Soriano, Lastings Milledge) there are blunders of epic proportions; Ronnie Belliard and Dmitri Young are still not worth the millions they are paid, and I can?t even mention Felipe Lopez or Kearns without weeping. Guzman?s somewhat decent season does not make up the terrible contract he initially signed, unless traded for a prospect. Also, hardly anyone on the team looks remotely athletic (except for Dukes who?s a freak of nature). In addition to a better conditioning and training staff, the Nats need better personnel selecting the major league squad. The front office should have people who want to make Manny Acta?s job easier, or else he might be lost to the Mets (a team that actually spends money).
Mike Rizzo, assistant general manager and vice-president of baseball operations, seems to be Kasten?s personal pick to eventually replace Bowden. I only fear that Rizzo might bolt before the Nats get a chance to promote him. Rumor has it he is on the short list for a couple teams like Philadelphia or Seattle who are shopping for GM's this offseason. Together, Acta, Rizzo, and Kasten can reform the Nationals and actually spend the money the Lerners promised would be there once the new park was completed. I?ll write this season off as a mulligan since the stadium still has a few kinks to iron out (like corporate sponsorship which will bring in additional revenue for better players). But if they don?t fire Bowden ? who has never been the right GM for a salary-limited or rebuilding franchise ? then it?ll be difficult for Nats' fans (all 30,000 of them) to continue having hope for the future.
Kasten and Bowden are quite an odd pairing. Kasten is known for taking his time in building perennial contenders like the Atlanta Braves of the nineties; whereas, Bowden has never met a trade that didn?t stroke his feathers. No one in the DC area expected the Nats to be great this season, but we at least wanted a team that would make us grateful for the new stadium. For now, we?re stuck with this overmatched, glorified Triple-A team full of controversial figures (from the front office to the backstop) and career utility players. Time to blow it up, Stan; it?s the only way to get butts in seats and people watching at home. Blow it up.