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.