Thursday, May 25, 2006

Combined sucking of Nationals and Orioles threatens to engulf P.G., Montgomery and Howard counties in powerful vortex

So the first "Battle of the Beltway" has come and gone. The Nationals took a 2-1 series win in what truly was an epic battle of "who can suck less this weekend," and the biggest news to come from the whole thing is that I didn't post about it once.

Yeah, that's kind of self-important, but I figure my apathy is pretty representative of the apathy of the population as a whole. The area didn't exactly get worked into a frenzy over that weekend-long Quadruple-A baseball showcase at RFK. (They even held a minor league/major league day just to emphasize that what you were watching was not Major League level ball.)

Here's the problem: These teams aren't good. Maybe saying they "suck" is a little harsh, but... wait, no it's not.

Keven Millar said it well: "Nobody's interested in two teams that aren't winning ... Once you throw winning into the equation, it becomes a rivalry."

If the match-up came in April it could have been compelling. The Nats were coming off a .500 season and the O's were cautiously optimistic with several additions and the hope brought by pitching coach Leo Mazzone.

But no. Instead the rivalry came more than 40 games into the season. The O's had lost four of five and 15 of 23 going into the series and the Nats had dropped six of eight and had a sparkling 14-27 record on the year before the teams faced each other.

It's hard to stay passionate a month or two into a long season. It's actually taxing to be a fan of a bad team, because the schedule is such that you're constantly reminded that the team you love sucks. Even if you stop watching the games, the reminders are unavoidable. You turn on ESPN at any time, and "The Bottom Line" tells you that your team lost. You open the newspaper in the morning and the box score lets you know how bad your team is. You load up Firefox and your local headlines give you the miserable details.

SC at Camden Chat said it best:
"Baseball fandom is a love affair unlike any other sport. There are 162 games. No once a week, no 81 or 82, no chance to really catch your breath like you can with other sports. Even basketball and hockey have a bunch of days off. If you're a diehard fan of a bad baseball team, it is a constant bludgeoning for six months. The days your team isn't playing start to look like relief, and even then, if you're like me, you kinda wish you had a game to watch."
Deep, brother. Deep.

Plus, it's just not enticing when two cellar-dwellers duke it out, especially at a dump like RFK. Maybe a few more fans could have been baited to the park by the promise of some Boog's Barbecue, tasty Esskay Oriole franks, Uncle Teddy's cinnamon sugar pretzels and a beautiful evening at one of baseball's premier ballparks, but instead MLB decided they wanted the "rivalry" to kick off in a soccer stadium.

Getting the fans into the game was impossible -- the Orioles have spent the last eight years breeding apathy toward them and Washington fans are notorious for sitting on their hands -- but better scheduling could have at least gotten fans into the stadium.

The old and heinously overused addage is, "You can't polish a turd." But Major League Baseball has been doing just that for years. What's that? The Pirates have sucked for 20 years? Build 'em a shiny new ballpark! The Reds haven't been worth anything since Jose Rijo was on the team ... the first time around? NEW BALLPARK! The Phillies are the losingest franchise in any of the four major sports??? NEEWWWWW BALLLPAAAAAAAAAAARK!!!!!!

The Nats brass should know this all too well. Expos fans would still be dancing on the dugout with Youppi if the city of Montreal had agreed to put Le Stade Olympique out of its misery.

But starting the rivalry at Camden Yards would have just made too much sense. Sure, attendance has been low at both parks, but fans still love the atmosphere of Camden Yards and go when compelled. People actively avoid RFK.

And don't even get me started on the Nationals policy of charging "premium" prices for the games at RFK against the Orioles, Yankees and Cubs. (Cubs? Be serious.) Yeah, $5 to $10 more per ticket if you want to Metro to D.C. United's home field to watch a baseball game against a popular team. (How do they take the mound off the field for soccer games, anyway?) It's one of the more deplorable schemes I've seen from a pro sports franchise to squeeze every last dime out of its fan base, but why would I expect any less from a team collectively owned by the 29 other team owners.

Now we've got to wait until June 23 to renew the rivalry at the better ballpark up north, and by then both teams could be 20 games out of first! ("Could be..."? Ha! Ever the optimist, I guess...)

But Nats fans, consider this your open invitation to come on up anyway. I personally guarantee that the tickets will be the same price as every other game, and we certainly don't discriminate... just ask Red Sox and Yankees fans who make Oriole Park their home stadium 9 or 10 times a year.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Is D.C. big enough for TWO "Big Teds"?

Start counting down to Jim Bowden's firing, because at loooooooong last, Major League Baseball's bullpen of morons has given the Nationals their first owner, and it's the group led by Theodore Lerner, just like Brett Haber said a week ago. Of course, MLB couldn't just confirm those reports because that would mean a week less of suffering for the nation's capital. Or maybe they just don't like Brett Haber's smartassedness (that's SMART-ass-ID-niss: the state or act of being a smartass).

So now the two most strugglinest franchises in the area (STRUG-lin-ist: the state or act of struggling) -- the 9-19 Nationals and the lottery-picking Capitals -- are both owned by guys named Ted. Ted L., even.

So let's weigh the pros and cons in a Ted vs. Ted bout of the ages.

Ted Leonsis:

The Skinny: Vice chairman of America Online, he included owning a sports franchise on his list of "101 Things To Do Before I Die," so he bought the historically awful to mediocre Capitals from a guy who was tired of the Cappies dragging down his Wizards stock. He spent freely early on, getting stars like Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang, only to see them slack off, barely make the playoffs and lose in the first round, as the Capitals are wont to do. Sensing a lockout, he held a firesale, trading Jagr to the Rangers for prospects, Peter Bondra to Ottawa for prospects, and Robert Lang to the Red Wings for a three-pack of white-collared/white-cuffed dress shirts from Boscov's. After the lockout he began the rebuilding process with said prospects (while wearing said shirts) plus some kid they drafted named Orangechicken or something like that.

  • Accessibility. Leonsis listens to fans. He gives out his e-mail address... and he actually reads the e-mails. The original "Big Ted" is easily the most accessible owner in the area.

  • Pay the men. He was clearly willing to lose a truckload of money to at least take a shot at the Stanley Cup.

  • Reform. When spend spend spend didn't work, he altered his plan and now has a plan in place to build a perennially competitive franchise.

  • Blogger-friendly. Ted has been known to invite Caps-friendly bloggers to the owner's box for games. (What's up ted? I'm easy to reach if you want... ya know... I talk about the Caps sometimes...)

  • Jiggy. He has been known to do a little post-goal dance in clear shot of arena and television cameras after the Capitals score in crucial situations.

  • Alienation's Capitals. Leonsis has repeatedly made mention of the Capitals fan base being strongest in D.C. and Northern Virginia, much to the chagrin of Maryland Caps fans who feel they don't receive any attention from Caps promotions.

  • Adverteasing. He has received criticism for lack of promoting in the area, perhaps contributing to lackluster attendance.

  • George McPheever. Ted has shown unwaivering commitment to General Manager George McPhee, who doesn't seem to be a fan favorite. But this is D.C. Name me one GM in the area that people loved.

  • Temper? Leonsis allegedly grabbed fan Jason Hammer by the neck and tried to throw him to the ground at MCI Center in 2004.

  • Jiggy. He has been known to do a little post-goal dance in clear shot of arena and television cameras after the Capitals score in crucial situations.

Ted Lerner:

The Skinny: Lerner built his legacy from the ground up, and that's going to come in handy when he takes over the Nationals. Because the Nationals right now are a disaster. He probably prefers to look at them as undeveloped land. I'll stick with disaster. Lerner started selling houses after his father died in 1946. He was 21 and still going to George Washington University Law School, so he took up real estate on the weekends to help his family. Lerner later moved up to shopping malls, and "by the late 1980s, one could assume that every adult in Washington had probably lived, worked, or shopped in a building developed by Ted Lerner," according to Washingtonian Magazine. In 2003 he was elected to the Washington Business Hall of Fame.

  • Local boy. If anyone knows this area -- and how to milk money from it's people -- it's Ted Lerner. The man behind Tysons Corner Center should be able to find a way to get people to the turnstyles.

  • Family man. Lerner's group includes his son Mark and sons-in-law, Edward L. Cohen and Robert K. Tanenbaum. That should ensure that the team doesn't change hands too much in the next few decades, although we all saw what Jack Kent Cooke's kids did as soon as they got their hands on daddy's team.

  • Deep pockets. Basing this on very little actual information, it seems like Lerner is ready to fork over some cash to compete. He's certainly got the money to do it. Yeah, Peter Angelos does too, but Lerner doesn't have to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox every year in a spending spree.

CONS: (and this is hard because he hasn't had the chance to screw up yet...)
  • Rent-a-minority? When Major League Baseball began grumbling about wanting diverse ownership groups, Lerner went out and found himself some diversity. Of course, the city's favorite crack smoker, Marion Barry, jumped in with claims that the Lerner group included "blacks being rented for a day." Although anything that pisses off Marion Barry could easily be spun as a positive.

  • NoVattention? Purely speculation here, but there's potential for Lerner to go the Leonsis route and not put any promotional effort in the Maryland suburbs. It will be even easier with the excuse that the O's have that market cornered. Allow me to let you in on a little secret, New Ted: People in Potomac, Bethesda and other well-to-do places in Montgomery County are WAY to high-class (HI-class: the state or act of being completely stuck up) to trudge all the way up to blue-collar Baltimore to go to games. Plus they all work at D.C. companies. Ignoring some of the team's richest patrons would be a huge mistake.

What both owners have to know about D.C. is that it's a tough town. If you're not winning, they're not showing up. So the winner will be whoever wins a championship first... or whoever moves their team to Indianapolis, where people may actually have some team loyalty.