When it comes to expansion teams, or teams that relocate, initial ticket sales are usually brisk, and there's almost always regional interest. The 1998 Rays outdrew the Red Sox, and they were about 50,000 short of outdrawing the White Sox and Twins combined. New teams sell. But the teams are curiosities at first, things that draw people from all over, like a wingding of a county fair.
It all gets less exciting with familiarity. Imagine a county fair that's open 365 days per year. The second time you go, you realize you can't get the corn-dog smell out of your clothes. The third time, you start to notice the shoddy craftsmanship of your frosted Journey mirror. The urge to relive the experience dies a bit. The same thing happened with Rays fans and Kevin Stocker.
The thing to remember about expansion or relocated teams: It takes time. Initial attendance is one thing, but it takes time to sustain the attendance. It takes time to foster the passion and the area-wide hum that accompanies a controversial trade or a fantastic home stand.
This is why the two Marlins fire sales were so craven and distasteful. Winning isn't the only way to build a loyal fan base, but it's the best way to do it quickly. The Marlins won, and then a short-sighted owner, tired of losing money, turned his attention to a business that couldn't fail: a chain of video-cassette rental stores. Whoops, sorry, forgot the link that was supposed to go with "video cassette".
So what you have with a team new to the area are people who are ostensibly fans, but the ratio of nutty-to-casual is off. You're probably not going to have a radio contest where contestants drink horse urine for playoff tickets right away. No need for the equine tea, my friend: You can just walk up and buy playoff tickets for $12 or more when they go on sale. This isn't a trend that lasts for the first few years of a team's existence. The Marlins are almost 20 years old, and the Diamondbacks regularly finish in the bottom-third of NL attendance.
This all comes up now because the Washington Nationals are trying to Take Back the Park. Normally, I'd capitalize those last words just to be a smart-ass, but it's really called the "Take Back the Park" campaign. They're tired of Phillies fans, specifically, and all of the stereotypes they bring. You know the stereotypes -- overzealous tippers, always carrying Cheez-Whiz to spray on everything they order, quick with a naughty limerick. You know, Phillies fans. And apparently there are a lot of them who don't mind driving a couple of hours to see their team on the road.
… starting Friday morning at 8 a.m., the club will begin selling single-game tickets for just a single weekend series: May 4-6, against the Phillies. These tickets will remain on sale for a full month before the rest of single-game tickets go on sale. And they’ll be available only to buyers with a credit card tied to an address in Maryland, the District or Virginia.
Fair enough, though the quotes from Nationals COO Andy Feffer are pretty adorable. Apologies to those of you reading this on a mobile device or in a crowded office, but these quotes are best read if you open this link in a different tab.
"Frankly, I was tired of seeing it," Nats COO Andy Feffer told me this week. "Forget you, Philly. This is our park, this is our town, these are our fans, and it’s our time right now."
The gathered masses exult. The cheering gets more and more frantic.
Cut to: Montage
"We’ve heard it enough, we’ve seen it enough, and I don’t like it any more than anyone else," Feffer said. "We’re trying to build a team here, and nothing irks me personally or the people here more than to see another team’s fans — particularly Philly fans — in our ballpark, holding up signs.
1) Feffer tearing a homemade Phillies sign in two with his bare hands
2) Nationals fans pushing brooms and cleaning up the park, getting ready for the big series
3) Charlie Manuel, watching from a distance, hands on hips, shaking his head
4) Bryce Harper teaching an 86-year-old woman how to apply eye-black
5) Jayson Werth training in the winter snow outside of a Soviet cabin
If life were an '80s movie, things would be that simple. In practice, though, what the Nationals really need is time. They'll need division champs and All-Stars, and they'll need Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg commemorative 20th-anniversary bobbleheads. They'll need stretches of brilliance mixed with stretches of futility and all things in between. In the meantime, Phillies fans will still come. There's a thing called the Internet, and tickets are readily available on it. There are people called scalpers, and they'll still hang around the park, 500 feet from the entrance.
The Nats are in a city with a baseball tradition, unlike Miami or Tampa, so maybe Nationals fanaticism doesn't have to wait a generation. But it will still take time. Until then, opposing fans will waltz right in and act like they own the place. There's no harm in trying what the Nationals planned, but the real salve will be time. And baseball. Lots of baseball, both good and bad. Preferably good.