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Sunday, May 17, 2009

My "Sunday Sermon" on rivalries

There really ought to be more of a sense of rivalry between the Nats and the Phillies. After all, they are our closest National League rivals, and their record against the Nats over the past five seasons is seriously dominating. The Nats have been able to play spoiler to the Phillies in some recent years September games, but I suppose a real rivalry, such as the Phillies have with the New York Mets, won't happen until the Nationals are much more competative. It is certainly a much more natural rivalry than the Nationals have with the Baltimore Orioles. That "rivalry" is a tad contrived, as it is really more of a battle for the hearts and minds of regional baseball fans. It made more sense when the American League Washington Senators played Baltimore frequently each season. The Orioles have a longer and more storied history than the Nationals, they play in what is widely regarded as one of the premier ballparks in baseball, and they get frequent visits from the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two of the oldest and most popular sports franchises in the world, which guarantees them some sellouts and lots of interest from the D.C. area. I would hope that the Nationals presence in Washington, D.C. allows fans of other popular and storied National League franchises, such as the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, who happen to live in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia or elsewhere within a two hour or so drive, the chance to see their teams in person.

So the Philadelphia Phillies, who are already 6-2 versus the Nats this season (as I type this, the Nats are leading the Phillies 6-5 in the bottom of the 7th) are the most natural choice for a rivalry. Once the Nationals start winning, and start selling more season tickets, that will help to keep Nationals Park from feeling like "Citizen's Bank South".

(Incidentally, Bob Carpenter on MASN just showed a graphic which demonstrated that in terms of average, runs per game, home runs, and extra base hits so far between these two clubs in 9 games this season, the Nationals stack up very well against the Phillies. Yet the lopsided disparity continues.)

It isn't any wonder that the Phillies fans overrun our ballpark. Team President Stan Kasten is savvy enough to know that a ticket in Philadelphia is hard to come by, especially since the Phillies are the defending World Series Champions, so he's encouraged Phillies fans (and fans of other teams) to come to Nationals Park and spend their money there and fill some seats. Kasten took some criticism for that but, really, it's a smart business move. Our NBA Washington Wizards (née Bullets) were marketed that way for years - "Come see Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers", or "See Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls", or "Watch Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics". The appeal of the other teams was greater than that of the home team.

Everybody loves a winner, especially in this, the most highly politicized town in the country, so until the Nationals lead the National League East, we can expect more of the same.

How will the Nationals achieve this? Primarily through pitching. Pitching, pitching, pitching. They have some good young arms in their system, and are bringing up more. They are bringing one of their best young prospects, Ross Detweiler, up to begin the Pirates series tomorrow evening. I hope that he earns a rotation spot.

I didn't intend this to be a roundabout way to bring up presumptive #1 college draftee Stephen Strasberg, but it's as good a time for me to weigh in on the Nationals expected decision to draft him as any.

I am 100% in favor of them drafting Strasberg. They need to draft him, offer him whatever Strasberg's agent, Scott Boras, asks for (supposedly 6 years, 50 million dollars) and get him signed. He could be up with the Nationals for a game or two in September, far too late to really help them but enough time to spark fan interest in off-season ticket sales.

Top pitchers put fans in the seats. I still regret not trying harder to see the Nationals/Astros game at R.F.K. a couple of years ago when Roger Clemens was here. Sure, they beat us, but Clemens would have been worth the agony of the defeat just to see him pitch.

Strasberg has had an amazing college career and Olympic stint. He won't need years in AA or AAA to prepare for the majors. If his signing could increase fan attendance at home every five days or so by even 10%, wouldn't that be worth the cost?

I know that better baseball minds than mine have cautioned against drafting Strasberg. It has been pointed out that no college pitcher drafted #1 has gone to the Hall of Fame. But things change. Exceptions are made. Chances are taken, gambles are done. I think that Strasberg is worth the risk, if for no other reason than the Lerner family and their partners have to demonstrate to the fans their willingness to spend money on quality players. They cannot risk getting the reputation of being "cheap" owners. They are building conservatively and cautiously (perhaps too cautiously for some) but they are in the business of building and when something is being built for permenance, it pays to be careful and cautious. It's cheaper and better to do things right the first time. I would much rather have a champion built well, which is competative for years and years than one which is bought and built through pricey free agents, which might collapse soon after (i.e. Florida Marlins model in the '90's).

Then we can really take it to those pesky Phillies and let the rivalry truly begin.

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