Attempting To Understand Fan Experience At Nationals Park

Whether Nationals fans like it or not, things like The Wave and Presidents Race have become a big part of the fan experience at Nationals Park and do a valuable service to the game.

I don’t understand it and I still don’t.

I was sitting on the third base side of Nationals Park taking in the Labor Day game between the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Nationals had already teed off on L.A. pitcher Hiroki Kuroda, hitting three home runs in the first inning off a pitcher that had earned wins in his previous four starts. It was an impressive feat considering this Nationals team has struggled to plate runs all season. However, in the middle of the fourth inning, it all seemed a memory as the Washington Racing Presidents ran out of the center field gate.

The roar in the stadium from the average sized crowd was deafening. Several people even got to their feet and started chanting, "Teddy, Teddy, Teddy…,’ cheering on the cartoon-like visage of president Theodore Roosevelt, who has never won since the current version of the race started in 2006. I can’t recall what botched Teddy’s chance at victory that particular game, but Teddy once again didn’t win, and the collective groan from the crowd was heard.

Come on, people. Let’s get serious. If you know the Presidents Race, then you know Teddy isn’t going to win anytime soon, especially not on any average day in any average game. If Teddy wins, the whole shtick is ruined and the Presidents Race loses any sense of meaning. Remember Bill Goldberg? Of course you don’t. Not after his 176-win streak was snapped. His gimmick lost its luster. The same thing would happen to Teddy and the Presidents Race. Teddy isn’t going to win any race until the Nationals win a World Series or a pennant. Book it.

Truth be told, I still don’t understand the attraction to the race itself. I know that I am not the only one. There are plenty of fans who are turned off by the races. In fact, lately, it seems there are a bunch of things turning off fans, or at least a certain faction of fans. I am not sure if it has always been there, but there seems to be a wave of conservatism that has washed over Natstown and even much of the sport itself. An ideology has begun to take root, one that seems to want to close the game’s borders rather than open and expand them.

If you think you haven’t experienced this type of purist suffocation, you would be mistaken because you already have. You need not look far. The attention Nationals prospect Bryce Harper received for a simple blown kiss to show up a minor league pitcher had no parallel in its farcicality. Jayson Werth, after putting in a first half performance that would have made Mario Mendoza blush, was rightfully booed by fans, who were simply using their right to express their discontent with his performance in a classical way that has been with the every sport, since sporting began. Yet there was an uproar over it, with some calling what can only be said for the removal of any emotion from the game. Then, a section of Nationals Park merely needs to throw their hands up, and within minutes, social media outlets are flooded with cries of blasphemy and to "please stop doing the wave."

Booing, the wave, player taunting and smack talk ... these are things that have been with baseball forever, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime ever. Yet rumor has it there was a circle of Nationals fans willing to get together and buy out a section of the Park devoted to no waves, no booing, their rules. This would actually be an interesting sociological experiment, except it goes against everything the Nationals and Major League Baseball are trying to create.

We all might not understand the fascination with things like the races and the wave, but these things are all part of the fan experience. The broader you can make it, the better. Diehard baseball fans will never get it. Their complaints that the in-game entertainment takes attention away from the game has some merit, but not much. If you are a diehard baseball fan, then your attention is already on the game, and not much is going to steal it away from the field. Besides, much of the in-game gags and gimmicks take place in between innings, where the only action is the grounds crew raking the field.

I used to be a purist of sorts too. I’m not ultimately interested in most of the things we are discussing now, especially waving my hat around when prompted. I always feel a bit stupid doing that, especially when I am the only one doing it in my section. But what convinced me that the anti-wave and anti-race people "have it wrong" was the GEICO Gecko. During that same game against the Dodgers I was walking the concourse and the Gecko in a Nationals jersey ended up walking in front of me. He would stop every so often to give a high five or take a photo with kids. Then I saw some teenagers not even wearing anything Nationals nor looking anything like your standard baseball fans just wandering around. When they saw the Gecko they went nuts and immediately started snapping pictures for Facebook. The joy in their eyes was undeniable and over something so simple and, yes, stupid and at Nationals Park. Better it happen at Nationals Park than anywhere else in my opinion. Memories are made and remembered.

That is what it is all about. Bringing in as many people around the game as possible, not excluding them or having them play by some tyrannical code of fusspots yearning for the days of fedoras and sundresses. I might not understand the fascination with it all, but if it brings people to the Park and that's all that matters.

Race on Teddy, race on.

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