Dreary days for long-suffering Nats fans

At Nationals Park, the die-hards are few and far between, compared with the horde of casual observers and fans of the opposing team.-Andrew Harnik/Examiner
Gloomy skies and a cold drizzle ushered in the 2011 baseball season as the Washington Nationals played before the smallest Opening Day crowd since the squad's days in Montreal.

As with every new spring, most of the 39,055 fans were optimistic on Opening Day, even for a team that has yet to post a winning record since it moved here in 2005.

"I'm still thrilled, no matter how low the quality of the team, that Washington has a baseball team," said David Dreyer, a longtime D.C. resident.

Washington Nationals attendance

Total Per game MLB rank
2005 2,731,993 33,728 #11
2006 2,153,058 26,580 #21
2007 1,961,606 24,217 #25
2008* 2,321,988 29,024** #19
2009 1,817,256 22,715** #24
2010 1,828,066 22,568 #23
*Nationals Park opened
**Team played one less home game
Source: ESPN.com, Washington Nationals

But by many measures, optimism starts the season down several runs with two outs in the ninth in Washington.

Avvo, a website that rates all sorts of things, found Washington to be "the unhappiest pro baseball city." The analysis weighed a host of factors, including number of days eliminated from making the playoffs and days in first place over the past three seasons.

At Nationals Park, the die-hards are few and far between. Some fans come to cheer for the opponent, and others just want to see a game -- any game.

Anthony Best, a D.C. native sporting a New York Yankees cap, said he didn't even know who the opposing team was on Opening Day (the Atlanta Braves) until he bought tickets the day before. On game day, tickets were available on StubHub for as little as 75 cents.

Still others said they typically only go to Nationals games when they are invited by friends or offered a free ticket.

"We're such a transient city," said local bar owner Soren Essen, who moved here six years ago. "There's a lot of people not originally from here -- it takes a while to build a fan base."

Those who cried when the Washington Senators left after 1971 and shed tears of joy when the Nationals debuted here say they aren't going anywhere. Burton Gerber, a season ticket holder since 2005, said he's never considered giving up his tickets.

"I'm a baseball fan -- you stay loyal to the team," he said.

The shortcut to drawing a larger following is to win, said John Maroon, a sports marketing expert. However, for a team that's a perennial basement dweller in the National League East, that shortcut has proven a long haul.

Except for a boost when Nationals Park debuted in 2008, annual team attendance has steadily fallen from more than 2.7 million to 1.8 million last year. The team sold out RFK Stadium in its April 2005 debut and filled Nationals Park's 41,222 seats in the 2008 and 2010 home openers.

But this year was the first time attendance didn't crack the 40,000 mark to open the season. It also was the only home opener that didn't sell out on Thursday, with the exception of New York's Yankee Stadium, which fell 2,000 shy of filling its 50,287 seats.

The Nats did enjoy a swell last year with the debut of much-hyped rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who boosted the team's usual attendance of fewer than 23,000 per game to more than 40,000 with each of his starts. But Strasburg's season-ending elbow injury last August will keep him out of Nationals Park in 2011, and Bryce Harper -- this year's highly anticipated rookie -- is still in the minors.

But it's players like that who can slowly change the tide, Maroon said.

"Having exciting, young players fixes a lot of things," he said. "They have that."