Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Growing Pains

Time to dust off the ol' blog and post some thoughts that have been rattling around my head the last 24 hours.

In the wake of Monday's Opening Day drubbing at the hands of the Marlins, a prominent storyline emerging from the media, the Natosphere and the message boards was the horrible fan experience at RFK on Monday. The complaints ranged from the truly disturbing (Raw hotdogs?!) to the comical (WHERE THE F%$# WAS THE KETTLE CORN?????????).

For some reason, the focus on the fan experience and not the debacle of a baseball game really bothered me. I expressed that in the comments at Capital Punishment and at YudaChat, which more or less caused people to vigorously defend their complaints.

Well, I've thought about why these complaints bother me so much, and I have a few theories.

First, let me say right off that some of the more egregious complaints, such as raw hotdogs or a 90 minute traffic jam in the parking lot, are fully understandable. Whoever is responsible for such issues -- whether it be the Nationals, Aramark or DCSEC -- need to be held accountable.

But I believe the overwhelming number of complaints and dominance of this storyline across several forms of media -- newspapers, blogs, message boards (and not just the notoriously nitpicky BPG), and radio shows -- speak to a larger issue. As the third year of baseball in DC begins, I still believe that Washington is an immature (or "rusty," if you prefer) baseball town. This cuts two ways, against both the fans at large and the franchise.

The Fans: Admittedly, I'm going on hearsay, but apparently after Monday's game, nearly every caller on Sportstalk 980 complained about concession lines and poor service at RFK. And the comment sections of St. Barry's National Journal were full of the same.

Not that some of the complaints aren't fully understandable, but not being able to get a hotdog is what bothered fans about Monday? Really? They didn't notice Patterson's stinktastic performance on the mound? They didn't notice the tape measure dingers by the Marlins that landed well into the upper deck? They didn't notice two of our starting players limping off the field with injuries?

Maybe I'm the strange one, but when I go to a ballgame, I'm most concerned by what happens on the field. (EDIT: I've ranted about this before. The first time was the third to last paragraph of my Opening Night 2005 post.)

Again, if a lot of what people say happened actually occurred, then that's bad and it should be rectified. (Even though RFK is a nearly 50 year old facility with a single freight elevator and antiquated infrastructure.) But I'd hope there'd be more outcry over the fact that the Nats stunk up the field Monday (and Tuesday too).

Perhaps the fans have already come to terms with the very real possibility of the Nationals being historically bad in 2007. (I haven't.) But I'm not so sure that's it. The service and the fan experience at RFK has been a common complaint of Nationals fans, even in the midst of the joy of the 2005 season.

Look, the Nationals fanbase is still relatively young. What I'm worried about it is Washington developing a "Chavez Ravine" -- arrive in the third, leave in the seventh inning, Blackberry in one hand, premium cocktail in the other -- attitude about baseball.

Maybe I'm expecting too much out of today's baseball fan, but the rampant complaints about service when the state of the team is so alarming don't give me a lot confidence about the future of our fanbase.

The Franchise: Stanley, Stanley, Stanley. You swept into town last summer preaching the wonders of the fan experience, touting your brisket, knockwurst, bockwurst, bratwurst, sausages, chili, barbecue, crabcakes and more. You've preached the wonders of "Teh Plan!" (which most of us have bought) and slashed payroll 41 percent. You've promised us the future is brighter, and asked us to "Pledge Our Allegiance!" You've told us how awesome the fan experience is going to be once the new stadium opens.

A majority of fans seem to be willing to fall in line with "Teh Plan" and believe things are going to get better. But although I personally care most about the baseball, it's awfully hard for a lot of fans to feel confident about the future when the present experience seems so crappy. Although some things may be the fault of Aramark or DCSEC, their performance reflects directly on the Nationals. The fans need something to help them feel good about the future, other than just a wink and a smile. The little things matter.

I realize it may seem like I'm trying to have it both ways by ranting against both the fans and the franchise. I truly do wish that Nationals fans could be less focused on the amenities of the ballpark and more concerned with the product on the field.

However, perception does matter, and the lack of the attention to detail from the Nationals could be a symptom of taking the fans goodwill and trust for granted. That's equally as disturbing.

Either way, it's clear to me the Nationals and the fans each have some growing to do before Washington becomes a fully thriving baseball town.

Though perhaps I'll revisit this post in three or four years when Little Rockette -- sitting in the nosebleed seats at Geico Park dressed up in a Esmailyn Gonzalez t-shirt and pink cap -- demands some F%$#ING KETTLE CORN, and Dad has to walk halfway around the park to find it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you whole heartedly. The concession issue sucked for some, but the beer man kept on coming around. My buddy went to get some popcorn for his kid and had to visit four stands and then was told that they couldn't break a ten...He comes back and bitches about it for twenty minutes. But man did we suck that day. We were the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked. I go for the baseball. I guess a lot of people go for the 6 dollar hot dogs. So be it.

4:31 PM  
Anonymous Simon Oliver Lockwood said...

My take is different. Yeah, the team played lousy the last two games. But, at least we know the players were trying. Patterson wasn't serving up meatballs because he just didn't care.

The failings of the stadium operations team was on a such basic and fundamental level that it really puts into question the amount of effort that's being put into it by significant parts of the chain-of-command.

BTW when you and Little Rockette do find that Kettle Corn stand, let me know where it is. I'll have someone who'll want it just as much ;-)

4:45 PM  
Blogger Rocket1124 said...

SOL - I guess I'm not thinking about it that deeply, on the level of negligence and effort. It's just this - what's more troubling as a fan, that we lost or that it took forever to get cold hot dog?

That's a little superficial of course, but I admit that I'm weird and crass about this issue. ;)

The concession issue does matter, but I think the loss should be what pisses off the fans.

BTW, I hope your wife is doing well and things are going smoothly!

5:33 PM  
Anonymous Simon Oliver Lockwood said...

I also see your point. The main reason I go to baseball games is to see baseball, and I want my team to win. And I dislike the idea of an organization concentrating soley on selling the "experience" to the exclusion of working to put a winning team on the field.

But no team is going to win more than 60-70% of its home games no matter how good it is, and at the price we have to pay there is a certain minimum standard of amenities that we should expect from a major league team, so the experience is pleasant win-or-lose.

Thanks, she's doing pretty well. Baby's starting to kick. She gets her first trip to the ball park tomorrow.

6:39 PM  
Anonymous Medley said...

there is a certain minimum standard of amenities that we should expect from a major league team, so the experience is pleasant win-or-lose

Exactly. There's no way the powers that be are going to listen to some middle-aged suburban woman complain about team/player management or about trading choices or the farm system or whatever.

But they might listen if I say that my interest in experiencing an entire game means that I'm more likely to stay home and watch on tv or listen on the radio than I am to go and have a rotten experience at the ballpark where I have to stand in line for 1-2 innings just to get a bit of over-priced protein.

--20-game season ticket holder who was originally inclined to try to persuade some friends to come out to a game or two this summer, but not if the experience is as underwhelming as it's been so far.

7:59 AM  

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