Saturday, November 15, 2008

If I Was Stan Kasten...

I figured its a good time to take a step back from the action on the field and think about some lighter issues. This is a post I've been thinking about since a day in late July when I sat alone in a section pretty much all to myself and started thinking about things I would do--aside from firing Bowden, bringing in better players, and winning more games--to improve the fan experience and hopefully boost interest in the team.

Here's the list I came up with--a mix of pretty obvious, no-brainers and some much more outside-the-box ideas:

1. Allow fans to watch the Nationals' batting practice. When I was a kid and my dad would take me to Wrigley, we'd always show up two hours or so before first pitch, and I'd have a baseball card for every player on the team and while the team took batting practice me and about 50 other kids would call out and try to get autographs. I think I got like Steve Trout and maybe Dick Tidrow or Steve Swisher--never anyone really great.But it was so much fun. Way better than watching the game itself, at least for a 8-year-old. This season while I was on parental leave I finally had time to show up for a game early like that, and I couldn't wait to wander down by the dugout and watch Zimmy and Nick take their cuts. When the usher told me that fans aren't allowed to watch BP, I swear I thought she was pulling my leg. When I realized she wasn't, I felt like Stan Kasten had personally murdered Santa Claus. Not allowing fans to watch BP is like banning keeping score or bringing your mitt to the game, and it's just shutting out their most loyal and youthful fan base, kids who just want to get a close look at their idols.

2. Show replays of close plays on the big screen. Have you ever been to a game, and there's a bang-bang play, and you think to yourself, "boy, I'd really like to see a replay of that"? Well, by policy, close plays are not shown on the scoreboard at Nationals Park. Someone told me that this is league-wide MLB policy, and if so, put this in the category of things I would do if I was Bud. But either way this is silly. I don't know if they're trying to protect the umps' egos or what, but there's no good reason not to use that giant scoreboard to show replays of key plays.

3. More $10-15 tickets. Pretty much every game you'd see people walking back to their cars after they found out that the only tickets left were $30+ seats. The team makes no money on those people, and a lot of them probably would be reluctant to try again in the future. The team's misjudging the market on ticket pricing, and with the economy falling, next year will only be worse.

4. License scalpers. In Pittsburgh, the ticket scalpers outside the stadium are licensed vendors and regulated. They all display their credentials on a badge around their necks, and they don't get hassled by the cops. Not coincidentally, they're not skeevy weirdos, but regular guys trying to make a buck (and sure plenty of Nationals scalpers are perfectly good dudes, but the skeeve factor is greater than it needs to be because of the illegality of the practice). They don't really cost the team anything--the tickets are sold at face value, so instead of trying to chase them away, the team should just be happy that there's enough interest to drive a secondary market, and for people like me who prefer not to stand in line at the ticket booth if I can avoid it, they're a nice option to have around.d

5. Add more high-end food options. The ballpark food was better at the new stadium, and generally I think it's fine. But if they took let's say 20% of the vendors and turned them over to really high-end food options--crab legs, lobster rolls, tapas, sushi... DC is a high-end market. There aren't very many burger joints and cheap diners. I think if they would cater to that crowd, people would pay a premium and come to the game for the food as well as the game.

6. Keep allowing food from outside. I just note this because it really seems inevitable that at some point this will change, and I hope it doesn't. For me, going to the game 10-15 times a year with my wife and daughter is totally reasonable at $20 total for the family. But if we have to eat at the stadium or leave work early enough to eat before the game--forget about it. We'll become 3-5 game-a-season fans in a heartbeat.

7. Build the big baseball over the Red Loft. In the initial renderings of the new stadium, there was supposed to be a giant, illuminated baseball over the Red Loft. The team said they put of building it for now because they felt it might be tacky, and so they wanted to see how it looked with no ball. But as it is, there's just this kind of weird round platform that looks like it should have something on top. And the stadium I think is just too vanilla. It needs some excitement, and the ball would add a degree of carnival-style fun.

8. Embrace DC baseball history, shunt the Expos off to the side. Apologies to Federal Baseball and the handful of other Expos fans out there, but it just doesn't make sense to talk about Montreal anymore in Nationals history. This team should recognize and fully celebrate the records and championships of the old Senators franchises. Yes, there's some references to the history of MLB in DC, but not nearly enough. There's a long, proud history of MLB in this town, and no sport is more dependent on its history for it's appeal than baseball. I want the Nationals to celebrate Walter Johnson, Joe Cronin, and Frank Howard the way the Yankees celebrate DiMaggio, Gehrig, and Ruth.

9. Related, get rid of all the generic MLB stuff at the stadium. When I go into the batting cage, I want the image to be John Lannan pitching to me, not Randy Johnson. When I walk around the stadium, I want DC's baseball heroes on the pillars, not Yankees and Red Sox I don't care about. When I get ice cream in a helmet, I want a curly W helmet.

10. Replace Clint: I know, he takes a lot of abuse, probably too much, but really, in a city the size of Washington, DC, they should be able to find someone who is basically likable. Clint just oozes arrogance and sleaze. I've suggested before that he would be more tolerable if they paired him with a no-nonsense female co-host who could cut him down to size, maybe someone like Annabeth Schott, the little spark-plug assistant press secretary who staffed VP candidate Leo on the final season of The West Wing played by Kristin Chenoweth. But really they should just dump him and hire someone endearing and sincere, like a young Alan Ruck-type guy would be good.

11. Pitch f/x data, pitch type, etc. on the scoreboard. This is another one that MLB probably wouldn't allow, but the pitch f/x data that we all can see in real time on Gameday should be regularly posted on the scoreboard. That means not just pitch speed, but pitch type and break. Better yet, show where the pitch crossed the strike zone, so fans can see whether the ump is calling balls and strikes accurately or not.

12. Free admission after the 11th inning. When I was in high school and college, one of my favorite things to do on a Friday night with my friends was to go see the late night improv session at Second City, which was always free and first-come, first-served. It was almost always students who would show up, and none of us had the money to come to a regular performance, so for us that was our only option. And guess what--we had a blast, and now when I'm home for the holidays, often me and my old high school friends go to Second City, paying full fare. I think the Nationals could do something similar by having a standing rule that for any game that goes past the 11th inning, they'll open the front gates and anyone who wants to come watch is welcome. There's plenty of standing room in the concourses, so the paying fans wouldn't be disturbed at all. Frankly I doubt very many people would even take advantage. But it would create a buzz, and those who do show I bet would be young people like me and my old friends who would never go to a game under any other circumstance.

13. Similarly, the Saturday night movie should be free to anyone who wants to show up and watch. Again, a whole different market niche might give it a try, and if they have fun, come to an actual game next time.

14. Let Milledge and Dukes be themselves. This I imagine will be controversial, but to me, MLB is way too stodgy and boring. I don't need ballplayers to act like Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson (BTW, someone really needs to tell him the 85 in Spanish is "ochenta y cinco"), but I'll never understand why people think it's so awful that Lastings Milledge high-fived the fans. For me, that was one of the coolest, most fun-loving things I've seen from a ballplayer ever. Milledge still showed some flair this year--taking the hand-off rounding third, some good dugout celebrations--but he and Dukes in particular were clearly going out of their way to tone it down. I say, let the kids be themselves. Gimme more chest-thumping walk-offs, dancing in the on-deck circle, elaborate pre-planned home run celebrations... the traditionalists won't like it, but guess what, there aren't enough traditionalists to get those ratings over 9,000 fans per game anyway, and those old fogeys aren't going to stop going to games regardless. Meanwhile, the younger generation might actually pay attention a little.

15. Just stop copying other teams' traditions. There are lots of good sing-alongs besides "Sweet Caroline." That's Boston's thing. We should get our own thing. There are a bunch of little things like this that I wish we'd replace.

16. That said, get rid of that silly rule that says you can't "throw back" opposing team's homers. If fans want to do that spontaneously, why should the team discourage it? Even if it is a Cub thing originally.

17. Southwest airlines-style first-come-first-serve seating for one game. Another outside-the-box buzz-builder. Pick one game and instead of selling assigned seats, just charge everyone 25 bucks or so and let people sit wherever they want. Again, people who wouldn't be willing to pay for a $50+ seat normally might sit up front and realize that it's worth the money and pay full fare for a better seat next time.


Rob B said...

Good call on the BP thing. I didn't know about that but it's a ridiculous policy.
I also didn't know about throwing back the other team's homers. When did that become an official no-no? What happens if you do it; you get thrown out of the stadium??
Sorry, but that's horseshit. I thought this was still a free country...

Collin said...

Great post and strongly echo everything you said. It's bad enough to have to watch a terrible product, but a generic stadium featuring other MLB teams and traditions makes it much harder to swallow. The stadium, while very nice, lacks warmth, and feels like a MLB marketing machine more than a place to watch the pastime.

Additional comments:
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE take down the red tent at the top of the parking deck in left field. It blocks the view of the Capitol which was supposed to be a big draw to the stadium. Just move the tent over to the deck in right field... then, open it up for tail gaiters!

I know it was just built, but renovate the red porch restaurant. The cinder block look is pretty bland and uninviting. In fact, the same can be said throughout the park.

I'm a full season ticket holder and sell off 41 of those games. Of the remaining games, I only make it to about 30 simply b/c the cost of food becomes overwhelming. That said, the empanada stand outside the park is great.

Steve Shoup said...

Couldn't agree more Steven batting practice should be a MUST. I went to opening day last year and batting practice was open and my dad and I had the best time watching Dukes, Milledge and Zimmerman take their cuts. I am a 20 game (now 21 game) ticket holder so I dont know if its different for season ticket holders but that should at the very least be a perk for any game package holders. I know the O's allow their season and I believe half season ticket holders to come and watch batting practice for every game. Now i agree with you that it should be for everyone and I hope that this is the first change they made.

Like you i wish they would have close replays but have heard thats a league issue. If thats the case why don't they have just more replays in general close plays or not. You have a MASSIVE HD video screen use it.

I think they should do like the O's do and have licensed vendors and allow the food they sell to be carried into the stadium. They help the city, help the team (b/c as you said plenty of fans don't want to pay high prices for food so they are discouraged on coming out) and they help the fans.

bmfc1 said...

Would it offend Nationals fans if stuff was sold for the opposing team? E.g., Mets hats, Phillies shirts, etc. There are so many out-of-town fans that this seems like an easy source of revenue for the Nationals. A portion of one tent on each side and a place in the stores isn't too much to ask, is it?

Steven said...

Sure, Phillies shirts would be fine. We could have one with Chase Utley's picture that says "World Fucking Champion Cheap Shot Artist." Or we could have little plaques that Mets fans can hang in their kitchens that say, "In case of choking or the arrival of the month of September, please use Heimlich maneuver." Or for the Cubs fans we could have hats taht say, "Lovable? Possibly. Loser? Definitely." For the Marlins fans we should just have t-shirts that say, "Marlins baseball," cuz, you know, they need help remembering the name of their team and the sport they play. For the spouses of Mets fans, we can have blue and orange "I'm with stupid" t-shirts." For the wives of Phillies fans we can have sparring helmets that say, "Please win; my husband beats me when you lose."

OK, so that was overboard. Sorry.

bmfc1, you seem like a nice guy/gal. But your friends have worn out their welcome with their boorish, disrespectful behavior. No, we don't want your t-shirts in our stadium. You'll have to buy them at

bmfc1 said...

I've never seen a Mets fan act disrespectfully toward your team or your fans. I certainly haven't and neither have my friends or family. We root for our team, say nothing about yours, spend money at your stadium, and go home. Don't lump us with Phillies fans. I enjoy FJB for being a home of intelligent baseball talk--something quite rare in DC so I am stunned at your reply.

An Briosca Mor said...

AFAIK a couple of gates are supposed to be opened 2.5 hours before game time so fans can watch Nationals BP. The rest of the gates are opened 1.5 hours before game time. In fact, the couple of times I did happen to arrive earlier than 1.5 hours before the game, they were funneling people in through just one gate to the left of the main CF gate. So you can get in, and you can watch Nats BP. You just have to do it from the outfield area - although I believe you are allowed into the stands so you can try to grab BP HR balls. They just won't let you into the main seating area until all the gates open 1.5 hours prior to the game, which does mean you can't hang out behind the dugout as you said. But you can get in for Nats BP. So kwitcherbitchen on this one.

Steven said...

ABM--I'll ask again when the season starts, but on the day I'm referencing, I entered withing 5 minutes of the gate opening hoping to see everything. Then I asked at the box office and the ushers, and they said that Nats policy was no BP-watching. So at least on that day, I didn't get to see it. Maybe they changed it after fans like me complained, in which case I'll surely take credit!

bmfc--I'm just playing around. You're not right when you say that the out of town fans (Mets or otherwise) are all always respectful guests, but whatever--it's a sporting event. Like I said, it's a friendly rivalry and I was mostly just busting your chops. So keep coming--I'd rather have a full stadium 2/3s Phillies fans than an empty Marlin-esque stadium. and maybe someday we'll have bragging rights.

But, again, personally, I would prefer if the Nationals Fan Store was all wall-to-wall Nats stuff only. I wouldn't be offended by the appearance of out of town fan stuff, I just would vote against it. And from the team's perspective, I thikn they need to invest more than they are in building up a loyal hometown fan base by making the stadium experience a more pure NATIONALS PARK experience. But that's just me.

Sorry I offended you--I was just trying to be funny and playful. Hope you still come around.

An Briosca Mor said...

From the Nationals Park Guests A to Z Guide booklet handed out at the ballpark last season:

Guests are invited to watch batting practice upon the opening of gates. Center Field Gate will open approximately 2 1/2 hours prior to the start of each game. All other gates will open approximately 1 1/2 hours prior to the start of the game. Batting practice times are approximate and subject to change without prior notification and at the discretion of either team.

For all Nationals home games, the Center Field Gate will open 2 1/2 hours prior to first pitch. At this time, guests will have access to the Red Porch, Strike Zone, stands to watch batting practice and concession stands. All other gates will open 1 1/2 hours prior to first pitch.

What's not stated here but surely implied is that the stands and concession stands referenced here are in the CF Gate area, not down by the dugout, i.e. the entire park is not opened until 1 1/2 hours prior to first pitch.

Which gate were you entering when you were rebuffed? Sounds like you were the victim of a clueless usher. (There are certainly more than a few of those.)

Steven said...

ABM--thanks for the tip. So if this is actually what the Nationals do 81 times a year, that you can watch but only from the outfield, then I would still change it and say that you should be able to watch BP from close up. The day I went, I entered thru the CF gate at 4 pm or whenever it was that the gates opened (I forget, but I bought a $5 ticket and was there when the gate opened), and by that point the Nats had already taken BP. I got to see the Marlins, but not the Nationals. So that's not inconsistent with what the policy says--there's nothing there that says the Nats won't take BP at 3 pm (or presumably in the indoor batting cage I guess).

Either way, BP should be a show for the fans.

(j)on said...

you're a winner in my book when you drop Annabeth Schott into a Nats post.

Dale said...

At least half of the picnic tables on the concourse level should be available for general use at every game. The Nats often rented out this space to groups in 08, leaving the rest of us to take our food to our seats and try to balance it on our laps while watching the game.