Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Washington Nationals Are Another Disgraceful Franchise

If you build a baseball stadium in Southeast Washington D.C., should you be surprised when people still show up to see your team lose?
The Nats' final home game of the year Wednesday combined all the paradoxical and troubling threads of a season in which the team had the game's worst record and saw attendance drop 22 percent. Yet these same Nats, who will certainly receive revenue-sharing funds from other clubs this winter, operate on such a low budget and possess such a healthy bottom line that they are the financial envy of most other franchises.

The combination of Nats potential, both as a team and a market, has stood in contrast all year to the team's deluge of 103 losses. All that was illustrated, to an almost ludicrously degree, by a Justin Maxwell walk-off grand slam to sweep the Mets before 23,944. That two-out, full-count blast in the ninth off New York reliever Francisco Rodriguez brought cheers but also a hard question. Why are such moments, which make addiction to baseball go viral in any town, so rare here?

As Washington's obvious promise has been thwarted by its gruesome won-lost reality, resentment toward the way the Nats do business, already prevalent in Washington, is now spreading through the game. This offseason may be the juncture at which both local fans, as well as executives throughout the game, decide if the Lerners are responsible baseball citizens.

The Nats, who clinched the game's worst record on Wednesday thanks to a Pirates win, are on the verge of becoming a lightning rod of criticism, especially by big-market teams that pay into the game's huge revenue-sharing pot, according to numerous baseball sources contacted over the last three months.

"You're probably going to see revenue-sharing reform pretty soon," an American League executive said. "It's usually small-market teams like Pittsburgh that are the issue."

The Pirates, who have fielded 17 straight losing teams yet concede they have made a profit in each of the past six seasons, exemplify the business model: keep the payroll tiny, lose a ton of games every year, yet turn a profit thanks to revenue sharing and then claim it's the only way to survive in a tiny market.

There's nothing wrong with making a profit, nor is there anything wrong with losing. Deliberately fielding an inferior product is the real culprit because it dilutes the game and allows other teams to inflate their statistics. No perennial loser should be allowed to escape scrutiny for dumping players, making trades where the only consideration is salary, and for jacking up ticket prices when the fans aren't looking.

Boswell is correct when he asserts that it really is better to be a lousy team, financially, than to spend tens of millions of dollars to try to get better. Hey, Washington D.C., you bought it, you own it. Good luck with it.

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