At the helm of a first place team with the All-Star break just days away, manager Dusty Baker was asked on Wednesday for his impressions of Washington, D.C. and Nationals Park now that the first half of his first season in town is technically in the books. The skipper said the stadium is a "wonderful place to play." He also pointed out how unpredictable the weather can be and how that affects the games themselves.
Then, Baker went into the gameday experience and how Washington fans may be lagging behind their MLB counterparts in terms of crowd engagement and atmosphere. The Nationals rank in the top half of the league at 13th in baseball in average attendance at 31,063 fans per game. Baker, however, thinks a little more energy from those fans would do the team well.
"Some of the guys on the team wish our fans were a little more boisterous and crazy. A little bit like we see in different stadiums when we're on the road. We also realize that a lot of our fans are new Nationals fans. A whole bunch of them were Cubs and Mets [fans], wherever they come from. That's the dynamics of D.C., which you realize. But we're trying to win everybody to us. We need their energy, big time. Especially on days, there are some days when you don't have the energy. There's some days when you go to work and you don't feel it. You're trying to get it. Right? Some days you can just write a story like no problem, and then some days you're tearing up paper. 'I can't get this.' It's the same way for us," he explained.
"Like, you go to Chicago and 98 percent of them are Chicago Cubs fans. They're from Chicago. You go to New York. Most of the New York fans are from New York. On the other hand, you go to L.A. We used to say the same thing in L.A., like Dave Kingman hit three home runs off of us and he got a standing ovation because half of them in L.A. are from somewhere else. San Francisco fans are louder because probably 90 percent of them are from San Francisco. You go to White Sox fans, damn near 100 percent of them are from Chicago. It's just the different dynamics of the area and what makes up a lot of the population. You go to Cleveland, most of the fans from Cleveland are from Cleveland."
Baker acknowledged that the Nationals are a relatively new commodity in the region and in baseball. They have been around since 2005. The Cubs have been playing since 1874, the White Sox and Indians since 1901, the Mets have been in existence since 1962. The Giants have been in the Bay Area since 1958.
Even with D.C.'s transient population, there is no substitute for history and Baker knows that. He believes the best way to grow the Nats' fanbase in numbers but intensity is by starting young.
"You change it with the kids, I think. The kids can grow up, unless they're brainwashed by their parents. A lot of times they are. I was talking to somebody the other day and their dad wouldn't let them eat unless they were Yankees fans," he said.
"I think you start it with the kid. This franchise is only  years old. This is the third try here, correct? It starts with the kids. The kids actually bring their parents to the ballpark. The parents drive and they pay for the tickets, but I remember when I was a kid I begged my dad all the time to take me to the ballpark."
This, some may notice, comes on the heels of Wizards guard John Wall telling CSN Mid-Atlantic the fan atmosphere at Verizon Center may have played a role in Kevin Durant not considering the franchise during free agency. And other Nats players - most notably Bryce Harper - have noted a lack of engagement from fans in the past. What do those two teams have in common? They haven't won much of anything.
To be fair, these things haven't been said, or at least as often, by Redskins and Capitals players. In the Redskins' case, they have by far the most decorated history in town. It's no surprise that they dominate fan interest and discussion on television and radio shows. And for the Capitals, they have been the most consistently good team in town for years now. They also have in Alex Ovechkin, arguably the most transcendent athlete the city has enjoyed in decades, regardless of sport.
No matter the sports town, fan interest and winning generally go hand-in-hand. Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Philadelphia rank 19th, 20th and 22nd in MLB attendance, and no one accuses them of being bad sports towns. Even the White Sox and Indians, as Baker mentioned, both currently sit in the bottom five in MLB attendance, and the Indians are in first place.