CLEARWATER, Fla. - One of the perks of living in Philadelphia is the luxury of showing up to work every day without being surrounded by tens of thousands of New Yorkers. So imagine how Ty Wigginton felt one day in Baltimore when he sent a fly ball sailing over the outfield wall, only to be greeted as if he had finished the last of the corned beef.
"I can remember hitting a home run one time that gave us the lead at home," Wigginton said yesterday, "and then hearing boos."
Like most Phillies here at spring training, Wigginton's reaction upon hearing of the Washington Nationals' new ticket policy was bemusement. The 34-year-old veteran spent his first three major league seasons playing in Shea Stadium before embarking on a journey that more often than not resembled a jaunt through nuclear winter. After two seasons with the Pirates, he moved on to Tampa Bay, where the Devil Rays' only sellouts came during series against the Yankees and Red Sox. In 2009-10, he played for Baltimore, which had the misfortune of being an American League East city within driving distance of New York (not to mention the misfortune of being, well, Baltimore).
So even though many Phillies fans have expressed outrage at the Nationals' refusal to facilitate their annual march down Interstate 95, several players here in spring training can commiserate with their desire to "Take Back the Park." Put partisanship aside for a second and you will realize that Washington simply is utilizing a smart, if not altogether original, marketing ploy. Last year, the Nationals finished 20th in the majors in attendance, drawing an average of 24,877 fans per home game. That number surely would have been lower without nine home dates against the Phillies, whose fans did everything except purchase the naming rights for Nationals Park.
"It was definitely pro-Philly," said utility man Pete Orr, who played for the Nationals in 2008 and 2009 before spending last season with the Phillies.
Now, Washington is using that interest to its benefit. After an offseason that saw the Nationals acquire talented starters Edwin Jackson and Gio Gonzalez, the ticket office began limiting group sales for the May 4-6 series against the Phillies, which followed the institution of a policy that limits single-game ticket purchases to people with a District of Columbia, Maryland or Virginia address until a yet-to-be-specified date. The decisions have prompted complaints from many Phillies fans, including trip organizers who already had made deposits with the belief they would receive bulk ticket packages for their outings.
"If we lock a few Phillies fans out, so be it," Nationals chief operating officer Andrew Feffer told the Washington Post. "They can be angry all they want."
In reality, the mini-controversy can only benefit baseball fans, who have spent the past 3 years watching the Phillies run roughshod over their next-door NL East neighbors in Washington and New York. With the Mets mired in a long rebuilding process, the Nationals are suddenly the team that has the best potential to develop into the type of rival that made the 2007 and 2008 regular seasons so memorable.
"I don't think Nationals fans have the potential to create the crazy atmosphere that Phillies fans do, just because they aren't that kind of people," said reliever Michael Schwimer, who grew up in Alexandria, Va., and last August made his major league debut at Nationals Park. "They are a different type of people. But they can definitely sell out."
Schwimer points to the fervent interest in the Redskins, along with the emergence of the Capitals in the NHL.
"Once you are a good team for a long period of time, I think they'll stay even through losing seasons," Schwimer said.
Orr has played in several Nationals-Phillies games and has represented both sides of the aisle.
"I think the fans they do have are very knowledgeable," he said. "They get up in the right counts. They don't have to be told to cheer in certain situations. It's just a matter of getting a good team.
"When it is your home and the fans are rooting for the other team, you are thinking, 'That's the point we want to get to, to be that team.' "
That was Jayson Werth's message when he spoke to the Post this week. Werth pointed out that Citizens Bank Park used to be overrun by Mets fans, although a team spokesman disputed the former Phillies star's suggestion that the club orchestrated a campaign similar to "Take Back the Park."
Wigginton thinks such a campaign makes sense, saying that, while opposing fans rarely distract players during games, the atmosphere of a rabid home crowd can make it more fun to show up to the ballpark after a long road trip.
"The crowd goes a long way," he said. "I really believe that atmosphere can help you get up for a game."
If the Nationals' plan works, the Phillies won't get nearly as much help in Washington as they have in years past. But if the result is another heated NL East rivalry, we all might find ourselves enjoying the regular season even more. Especially if it no longer involves New Yorkers.