The Nats’ efforts to bolster fan attendance in the run up to this weekend’s first home series against the Phillies have been well-documented. It began in February, when the presale for individual game tickets was restricted to D.C., Maryland, and Virginia addresses only, and when COO Andy Feffer, along with other team officials, urged Nationals fans to “take back the park.” The notion has become a bit of a rallying cry for a team that could be entering a new era of competitiveness, one which may even have arrived earlier than anyone expected. Feffer and the team have offered further enticements, such as free tickets to future games with the purchase of tickets to this series. Mayor Vincent Gray gave the whole thing an official sheen by declaring this weekend “Natitude Weekend” and encouraging the locals to “show support of their hometown team.” It will likely not succeed to the extent that the organization is hoping, although they do claim some improvement in the proportion of in-area ticket sales so far.
Depressingly, and predictably, the reaction from Phillies fans and media has been equal parts bitter and condescending. By and large, the Twittersphere has been issuing a collective snort at the whole thing since it first arose. Noted perverted half-wit and habitual plagiarist Kyle Scott of the e-rag Crossing Broad has tweeted and posted endless whining on the topic, and has devoted whole posts to “The Takeover,” a 200 person bus trip (for a mere $120!) that will instantly become the most obnoxious thing happening on the planet for every second of its sweaty, Bud-Light-Lime-soaked existence.
What a shock.
Ed Rendell, trying to cling to relevance, also got in on the act. Various Philadelphia media members, including baseball writers and radio personalities (mostly on the Angelo Cataldi tier of the Insufferability Spectrum) have otherwise mocked or chided the Nats’ efforts. Superficially, the tone is haughty amusement, but there is a discernible undercurrent of surprise and indignation — how dare they. Universally, these responses lack any measure of self-awareness and pay no mind to present or historical context.
I’ve lived full-time in the Washington, D.C. area since 2005, and have attended a great many Nationals games. Both in the RFK days and since the new stadium was built, I’ve made a point of going to every Nationals/Phillies game that my schedule could feasibly accomodate, and many other Nationals home contests when the weather was fair and I hankered for live baseball. I had the pleasure of watching Ryan Zimmerman come into his own, Elijah Dukes doing . . . Elijah Dukes stuff, and Adam Dunn hitting the longest of long flies. I vividly remember, on a humid September night at RFK stadium in 2007, watching the Phillies beat the Nationals 7-6 on the strength of a Jimmy Rollins double, and then huddling around a friend’s blackberry as the crowd dispersed, tracking the Marlins’ 4 run comeback against the Mets in the 9th and 10th innings in Miami. The Phillies pulled within 1.5 games of the Mets that night, in a pennant race that inaugurated a new era of Phillies baseball.
After the new stadium was built, the atmosphere at Phillies/Nats games grew more adversarial, as Phillies fans realized that, in the numbers in which they traveled, and the numbers they already had in the DC area, they could create a home away from home — “CBP South,” as it came to be called by many. I can’t say that I didn’t get swept up in it, at least a little bit. It’s gratifying to see your team’s fans showing substantial support away from home, especially after many years of the Phillies being irrelevant to the NL East and to the league as a whole. But I had grown to like the Nationals as a team, along with their new, easily-accessible and cheap-to-attend stadium, and I found that, as the “CBP South” culture took hold, the atmosphere got uglier. It all came to an embarrassing head at the Nationals’ home opener in 2010, a Phillies game, where Phils fans again packed the stadium, bolstered by a few bus trips not unlike the one mentioned above. The Nationals’ Opening Day ceremony had all of the usual rituals. Except, as the Nationals’ roster was announced, and the players ran from the dugout to the first base line, Phillies fans chanted “SUCKS” after each name, and drowned out the music and announcements with booing in between.
They behaved similarly for the rest of the game. It was the most humiliated I ever remember feeling as a Phillies fan. Sitting next to me was a man in a weathered Nationals cap who had to be in his mid-70s, who regarded the whole thing with disbelief. I don’t know if he was a converted Orioles fan, a Senators fan from way back, or even an Expos fan, and it didn’t seem as if he wanted to talk about it to me, covered in Phillies gear from head to toe. I tried to make a show of how disgusted I was by the whole thing, but I don’t think I could’ve possibly done enough given what was happening. No future Phillies game at the park was quite as bad as that, but they weren’t that much better either.
This is the root of the “Our Park” movement by Nationals fans, and it’s disappointing that Phillies fans do not, or at least pretend not to, understand why it needs to happen. Fans of a team that have had as rough a go as the Nationals have since their inception need to pull as much enjoyment out of the little things as possible — individual player skills, fanfare, early-season hopes, and the simple joy of a ballpark atmosphere. To have the superior team’s fans flood the ballpark and make a big show of it — just because they can — momentarily ruins that experience. Nationals fans are no less fans of the game of baseball than Phillies fans (probably moreso, if we’re talking about the kind of people that make asses of themselves at Nationals Park), and they know — really, they know — that the Phillies have been the better team these last 7 years, that Citizens Bank is stuffed to the gills all of the time, and that Phillies fans are capable of operating a motor vehicle for two and a half hours on I-95 South. They know these things without a great red horde undertaking every effort to mock them in their own ballpark.
The natural rebuttal to this has been, roughly, “if they don’t like it, they should fill their own stadium.” And it’s true, the Nationals have struggled with attendance, finishing either 13th or 14th in the NL in each season since Nationals Park was built. But it’s easy for a Phillies fan to forget, nowadays, just how difficult it is to fill the stadium for a bad or even mediocre team. The Phillies had a similar run of attendance woes from 1997 to 2003, finishing 14th in attendance 4 times, 13th once, 12th once, and 10th once. True, these figures improved significantly when the Phillies got their new ballpark in 2004, but the team was getting better too; the Phillies averaged 77 wins per season from 1997-2003, and 86 wins per season from 2004-2006. I will happily watch a 100 loss Phillies team every day of the week, but it’s tough to blame fans for not filling the park to see some of the recent Nationals teams.
They did, of course, pack 40,315 people into the park for the June 8, 2010 debut of Stephen Strasburg, a preview of the future of their organization. I had the pleasure of attending, and the atmosphere rivaled any playoff game at Citizens’ Bank Park (particularly the most recent one I attended, game 5 of the 2011 NLDS, in which the crowd was conspicuously subdued). The crowd’s steady roar built with each strike, compounded by each time the radar gun showed triple digits, and the place exploded for each of Strasburg’s 14 strikeouts. Yes, Bryce Harper’s debut was not well-attended, but there is much less of a sense among Nationals fans and baseball fans as a whole that this was his true debut — he was placed on the roster with Ryan Zimmerman heading to the DL, and the consensus is that he’s not quite ready for the big leagues. If this 2012 Nationals team finishes on as high a level of competitiveness as they’re exhibiting now, I don’t think they’ll have any problem bringing people out in 2013.
I’m sure that this weekend, despite the Nationals’ efforts, is still going to be characterized by a dominant Phillies fan presence, and that ignoble bus trip will leave some kind of embarrassing mark on the whole thing. Nationals fandom and media may grow angrier, and that might escalate matters. But any Phillies fan who takes the smallest moment for some introspection should not be surprised or bothered by the Our Park movement. Because it is their park, and because Phillies fans remember what it’s like to see a nine guys who are probably going to lose take the field every day. The “Takeover” and all similar fan and media responses will only validate the rest of the country’s low opinion of the Philadelphia fandom. And, in case you haven’t checked the trendlines recently, the time to show grace in victory may be running out.