A note from the author:
First, thank you to Dan Steinberg and The Washington Post for giving me a chance to share my views on a topic I care about. I also appreciate their patience with me and the editing it required to make my barely serviceable prose readable. Below is the final version I submitted to The Post. They chose to remove a few things for the final version that went live online and into print.
Please note, I have 0 issue with the edits they made in the end. They have a lot more to worry about than I do and I completely understand the reasoning. Still, I thought it would be fun to share that first version with you all on our CBS platform. Thank you for reading.
“Hey what’s up buddy?” says the guy who just walked up to the bar. He has an aggressive southern drawl; somewhere between late-night TV preacher and guy-who-never-misses-the-race-at-Talladega. “You mind throwin’ the game on?”
This being Bethesda, the bartender asks, “Uuuhhhhhh, which game did you want?”
It’s a Saturday night in September. The first-place Nationals are playing the second-place Mets. The Nats’ Magic Number is less than 20, it’s a one-run game and the Nats have a chance to bury their arch rivals while doing significant damage to the Mets’ playoff hopes (they wouldn’t). THE game is on two televisions. One of them is directly in front of our southern friend.
“The CLEMSON game man!” exclaims Johnny South to the bartender, incredulous that someone could not know to which game he was referring.
The bartender grabs a remote, points it a cable box at a weird angle, turns on the guide, finds Clemson/Auburn and hits OK. Now the Nationals game against the rival Mets is no longer on television at a popular sports bar three miles from the D.C. line.
This is not an isolated incident.
I love baseball. I love Washington, D.C. I love the Nationals. I still remember the feeling when I heard that my hometown was getting a team of its own. I was euphoric. (Despite a certain radio host — who is still on air in D.C. — lamenting this development with quips like: ‘Ugh, does this mean we’ll have to talk about middle relievers now?’)
Let’s fast forward a little bit. Tickets were sold. A stadium was built. A Dominican kid wasn’t exactly a kid and he also had a different name — new GM! Some managers got fired, or quit and went to a bar. The team was bad but it was bad with a purpose. They started to get decent. People came to the ballpark. They won a couple division titles. Now we’re here. Still with me?
And we’ve hit a ceiling. It’s made of glass, so I think we can break through it, but it’s there. The Nationals have solid attendance numbers, despite Metro problems and the issues getting to a downtown ballpark in a high traffic city. The Nationals’ local TV ratings are not inspiring, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The beauty of baseball is that it’s always on. Those who appreciate it already know its appeal: streaks, averages, slumps, the big picture, game back, magic numbers, historical context, how truly abysmal the wave is, splits, strategy and all the rest that makes following a team — truly following it — a unique experience in sports.
Baseball is almost like going to a concert and sitting on the lawn: It can work as background. You can talk, do other things, and then snap to attention at a key moment. But that doesn’t work when TVs at bars are set on obscure soccer teams looking for that elusive first goal, or out-of-town games, or ‘whatever is on ESPN.’ (That’s what I call the Stephen A. Smith shows.)
Now, I realize some of this is anecdotal. I’m sure there are plenty of bars that take the time to play ‘The MASN Dating Game’ and figure out which channel the Nationals are on each night, and then flip on the game as a matter of habit. I’m also sure that some of you are thinking ‘Why not just ask the bartender to switch it? It’s only awkward for a couple minutes.’
That’s all well and good. I just know this: I’ve been to dozens of local bars and restaurants for one reason or another, and cannot tell you how often the Nats aren’t on, and how often no one seems to care. I can’t tell you how many people tweet me or see me at Nationals Park or other spots around town and tell me they’ve had the same experience.
I am not the confrontational sort (I’m writing this piece instead of protesting that Saturday night in Bethesda), and I don’t have much interest in interrupting other customers to make certain they are OK with a TV switch while bugging bartenders, servers, managers or anyone else about my desire to be the guy watching the baseball team play. There just never seem to be enough people who can’t go another second without the Nationals being on TV.
I don’t have a solution. I really don’t. I just know that it needs to change. Now. Like, right now. Starting tonight. Put the first-place team on TV, please. Make a point of doing it. Help build something.
For this fanbase to grow, two things need to happen. The Nationals need to continue to live up to their end of the bargain — and maybe break through and a win a playoff series or two. And we, as fans, need to break this glass TV ceiling.
Is it a chicken/egg scenario? If more people care, will the games be on in public more often? Or if the games are on in public, will more people care?
I tend to subscribe to the second theory. There’s a reason games are televised, a reason advertisers pay money to show you their product and a reason that the Nationals are in stage 4379 of litigation against Peter Angelos and MASN. Think about how many cowboys fans there are (purposefully not capitalized as a sign of disrespect). Why is that? Because they are always on, always discussed, always covered. So all those incredibly irritating people who have never set foot in dallas (lower case) and have invented some flimsy association with the most despicable sports franchise in the history of civilization are simply drones following the talking pictures on the magic box.
Now, back to us. The folks that already care about the Nats, the ones who knew about Koda Glover’s slider before he was called up, and can tell you why Jayson Werth’s batting average doesn’t come close to measuring his offensive value? We’re already in. We all want the same thing, don’t we? We want this fan base to grow, to care more, to appreciate how rare and incredible this current run the Nationals are on is.
Let’s grab the new fans. It will start as background noise, and before you know it, more people will be part of this thing. Put the game on and we’ll go from there.
Follow Danny Rouhier on Twitter