The Washington Nationals: Five years later

Eric Rosenhek
March 27, 2009

A professional baseball team in Washington D.C. seems like a natural fit. It only makes sense for “America’s pastime” to have representation in the U.S. capital. But ironically, there has been very little success for baseball fans in Washington to enjoy; and as the Washington Nationals prepare for their fifth season, they must strive to break away from this losing tradition.

There have been a few teams that made Washington their home. One of the first incarnations was known as the Senators and played during the National League’s formative years, but would ultimately disband before 1900. The second team, which was also known as the Senators (although they did call themselves the Nationals for a period of time), was formed in 1901 and would be part of the brand-new American League. The Senators were rarely a dominating team.

Despite the presence of Hall of Famers like Walter Johnson (the early years) and Harmon Killebrew (the later years), the Senators could only manage two AL pennants and one World Series title in 60 seasons. In 1960, the team was moved to Minnesota and became the Twins the following year.

However, Washington was awarded an expansion franchise that would also begin play in 1961. The “new” Senators would last until 1971 and would eventually become the Texas Rangers. The team finished no higher than fourth during its time in Washington. Thirty-three years would pass before professional baseball returned. In 2004, the Montreal Expos were moved to D.C. and renamed the Nationals.

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Just like the previous embodiments, the Nationals have been abysmal. After finishing the 2005 season with a record of 81-81, the Nats have been unable to finish above the .500 mark. Last season’s 59-102 record was the worst showing by the team since moving to Washington. The Nats have also had to deal with several disadvantages off-the-field.

“Playing in RFK Stadium for three seasons, only adding an owner after they arrived in D.C., and having their games broadcasted on a channel that proved hard to locate at times certainly didn’t help build the fanbase,” says Edward Chigliak, Editor-in-Chief of “These were all pretty significant bumps in the road, considering that even after relocating, they were still stagnant for almost two years.”

Washington inherited a fractured Expos franchise. The team was operated by MLB for their last two seasons in Montreal and was unable to find a proper owner until July 2006 when real estate developer Ted Lerner purchased the club. The Nationals also had a problematic television deal, which saw the majority of their games in 2005 and 2006 aired on a channel (the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network – MASN) that was unavailable to most fans in the D.C. area.

There were also several problems related to the construction of Nationals Park, a 41,888 seat stadium that opened in 2008. The off-field conflicts have continued in 2009. Earlier this month, Jim Bowden resigned as Washington’s general manager after being investigated by the FBI for allegedly allowing the skimming of signing bonuses that were intended for Latin American prospects.

Not surprisingly, all these outside tribulations, along with the Nationals’ poor performance, have led to a deteriorating interest in the organization. According to, the Nats drew an average of 29,005 fans to their home games in 2008 at Nationals Park, ranking them 19th out of 30 clubs for attendance. This is slightly up from 2007’s RFK Stadium average of 24,217 (fifth lowest), but nowhere near their 2005 mark where they averaged 33,728 fans (11th highest in the league).

The television numbers have taken a major hit. A July, 2008 article by John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal reported that Nats games on MASN were averaging a 0.39 rating, down 43.5% from 2007. The rating, as pointed out by Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post, amounts to about 9000 households in the D.C. market, making it the lowest amongst all MLB teams. But despite these negative figures, the Nationals do appear to have a small following.

“The fanbase is loyal, small, and you might even say ‘cult-ish,'” says Chigliak. “Right now, the Nationals are probably D.C.’s third favorite team behind the NFL’s Redskins and the NHL’s Capitals.”

There’s only one solution that will increase television numbers and attendance: the Nationals need to become a winning ballclub. After Lerner took over the team, a plan was formed to build the Nationals by investing in a farm system and draft picks. It would be orchestrated by former Atlanta Braves President Stan Kasten, the recently-departed Bowden, and Mike Rizzo, the former scouting director of the Arizona Diamondbacks. As Chigliak notes, “The Plan” has become the primary source of optimism for Nats fans.

“Two seasons after Stan Kasten took over as the Braves’ president in 1986, the ’88 Braves finished 54-106,” he states. “Three years after that, the Braves finished 94-68 and began a streak of 14-straight division titles. Atlanta’s example has often been mentioned as a template for ‘The Plan’ in D.C.”

“The Nationals have gotten their own 100+ loss season out of the way. They have an army of young pitchers either already in, or on the verge of making the majors,” said Chigliak, “like Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler, Shairon Martis, Collin Balester, John Lannan and Scott Olsen, along with fielders like Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, and catcher Jesus Flores.

“There’s also another wave of prospects that will be headed by this year’s No.1 overall pick. D.C. fans are about to find out if Kasten, Bowden and Rizzo have put together a contender.”

It appears “The Plan” is working, as several players in Washington’s farm system have been named top prospects by Baseball America.

With a new season on the horizon, the Nationals are at a crossroads. Based on the work by the team’s front office, the Nats appear to be moving forward. There are still many obstacles the club will have to face. Fans will have to be patient; a daunting task since instant success is preferred in these current conditions. It will be interesting to see if the Nationals can become a top contender. If they fail to meet this goal, they will become just another sad chapter in a city that is synonymous with baseball futility.

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The Author:

Eric Rosenhek