Is Washington Ready for the Nationals?

Washington Nationals Bryce Harper celebrates after scoring the go ahead home run against the Boston Red Sox during the ninth inning of Inter League MLB baseball action at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts June 10, 2012.
That’s a clown slide, bro.

A year ago yesterday, we headed with our parents to Nationals Park to see our beloved St. Louis Cardinals play the Washington Nationals. Our father hadn’t been to D.C. since he was a kid, the Cardinals happened to be in town, and tickets were cheap — logical decision. We ended up with excellent seats just behind the Cardinals’ dugout. The game didn’t turn out well, but that didn’t matter so much; all we remember were the fans. Washington Nationals fans aren’t mean or belligerent or anything like that. It was just that they had no idea what they were doing. They would randomly roam up and down the aisles during play — like they were at a bar or something — and the fourth and fifth innings were pretty much just nonstop attempts to start the wave. The worst part — the craziest, craziest part — was when Albert Pujols came on deck in the first inning. As soon as he appeared, much to our amazement, about 30 Nationals fans, from different seating areas, all sprinted down the aisle brandishing pens and a baseball. They were trying to get his autograph while the game was going on. Had these people ever seen a baseball game before? Were they raised in a barn?

We bring all this up because the Yankees are visiting our nation’s capital for only the second time since 1960 — they won two of three from the Nats at RFK Stadium in 2006 — and they happen to be catching the home team at perhaps the hottest baseball moment since they left Montreal. The Nationals have won six in a row, are four and a half games in first place in the National League East, and have the best record in baseball at 38-23. They also happen to have two of the most exciting young players in baseball in Stephen Strasburg — whom the Yankees will miss this series — and Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old wunderkind who happens to lead the team in OPS and is almost certainly going to win the Rookie of the Year award.

Any team in the world would be doing backflips repeatedly to have these two guys on the roster for the next decade or so; they’re essentially the Nationals’ version, the modern-day version, of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry. This is essentially the platonic ideal of being a baseball fan. Washington fans must be ecstatic! Nationals Park must be electric!

Except … not so much. The Nationals are currently twentieth in the majors in total attendance (behind the Mets, the Padres, and the Blue Jays), and they’re only selling about 68 percent of their seats so far. Now, both of those numbers will shoot up this weekend, because the Yankees are in town. But that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? That the Nationals need the Yankees’ fan base to boost their attendance numbers, like they’re the Orioles or the Rays or something. They have the most exciting young team in baseball. They have the best record in baseball. They should be losing their minds. And the place is two-thirds full.

A lot of this is history. The Nationals have stunk since they arrived in Washington, and that sort of ineptitude can set a tone. Also, the area around Nationals Park sort of stinks; all the development that was supposed to bring in all the cool bars and fun family stuff never arrived. (We Cardinals fans, suffering through the empty lot that was supposed to be Ballpark Village, can certainly relate to this.) But a lot of it, we think, really comes down to what we saw at the game last year: There just isn’t enough positive baseball history — there isn’t any, actually — in Washington for anyone to have much idea what to do with themselves, how to grasp the basics of watching a baseball game. The Washington Nationals are a young, growing team with an expansion fan base. The fans will get there eventually; we’re not in Florida, after all. But fans don’t seem to quite get it yet. One suspects all the Yankees fans who fill the stadium this weekend will have no issue with teaching them a bit and then sending them on their way.

Is Washington Ready for the Nationals?