I want to talk about baseball for a second, because after ten wins in a row and a strong lead in the NL East, the Nationals and their ownership are continuing what is essentially one of the greatest team and community-building exercises I’ve ever seen. It’s a master class in marketing and branding.
Despite being a Mets fan my entire life, I started getting turned on to the Nationals in the second half of the 2011 season. Davey Johnson and Stephen Strasburg combined to get my attention, and in 2012 Bryce Harper sealed the deal. They reminded me of the Davey Johnson/Dwight Gooden/Darryl Strawberry combination of the ‘86 Mets, and I felt like an 8-year-old kid again going to the games. The President’s race, the 2012 play-off run, getting to know acquired players like Jayson Werth and Gio Gonzalez but really learning to appreciate the home-grown talents like Ian Desmond, Jordan and Ryan Zimmerman(n), Danny Espinosa, Ross Detwiler, and others. And that’s the first step to getting a baseball fan like me excited - a strong farm system leading to a team comprised almost entirely of draft picks.
But what’s interesting to me, and what really sets the Nationals apart from other franchises, is that every single player who gets called up from the minor leagues is an instant star. Their t-shirts are made available in the shops, a media campaign is centered around introducing this player to the fans, and you feel as if you’ve been watching this player your entire life.
Last year, when Tanner Roark got called up, they made such a huge deal about his first two innings of baseball. His ENTIRE family was in the bleacher seats, and they were interviewing his dad and his mom and his siblings in-between innings. For a middle-reliever who pitched two innings of a game for a team that wasn’t setting the world on fire at the moment. Someone who, on most franchises, would hardly get a moment of press time.
Tanner Roark came up, we met his entire family, and we wanted him to succeed. And he did, of course, and earned a spot in the starting rotation in 2014.
And these players stick around. All the farm guys I mentioned so far are still on the team, in addition to Anthony Rendon, Drew Storen, Tyler Moore, Steven Souza, Michael Taylor, Taylor Jordan, Craig Stammen, Aaron Barrett, and more people I’m sure I’m forgetting. All draft picks, all on the 40-man roster. The Nationals don’t trade them for the flavor-of-the-month. There’s something so refreshing, as a baseball fan, about a team that doesn’t buy talent but cultivates it, instead.
But that’s me, a guy who watches baseball on TV, listens to it on the radio, goes to 25-30 games a year, fills out his score-book, and has visited 17 ballparks to-date. Where the Nationals have really succeeded is in making their team feel like Washington DC’s extended family, even for casual fans and non-fans.
I went to the game yesterday; a 4:05 game on a Thursday. It was also Ian Desmond bobble-head day. I got to the park at 2:30 or so, just before the gates opened. That first picture, above, is what I was greeted with. Four lines a block long to get into a ballgame almost two hours before it started because a) we wanted to see the Nats win ten-in-a-row and b) we wanted a bobble-head of home-grown hero Ian Desmond. A guy who didn’t make the All-Star game and who is hardly talked about outside of DC, had thousands upon thousands of people lining up to get his bobble-head because he’s OUR star.
You walk into the park and the walls are lined with pictures of players. Not just the marquee guys, but also the middle relievers and rising stars. Most people sport Harper, Strasburg, Werth, and Zimmerman shirts but you also see a lot of Clippard, Ramos, Rendon, Fister, Gonzalez, Span, Roark, LaRoche, etc, etc, etc shirts.
The Nationals organization, in a stroke of genius, decided that Washington DC didn’t need a star…they needed a community. And the stadium was packed for two hours on a Thursday afternoon with people buying beers and food and clutching their Ian Desmond bobbleheads, and then three hours more watching the game.
And all those concession sales and ticket sales, they’ll hopefully go towards keeping some of our guys around. That’s the one thing I’m afraid of, the Nationals having a fire-sale at some point for a quick buck.
I don’t see them going that way, honestly. They’re introducing this Nats Plus program next year where full- and half-season ticket holders get a black card, tons of benefits, and the opportunity to hang out with the players on the field. I’m thinking that they’re going to keep this community going for quite some time, and I’m also thinking I’ll be sporting a Nats Black Card next season.
Anyway, sportsball, ammirite?
Baseball, now more than ever, needs A LOT more of this.