Stubbed Out: Nats ticket resellers whiff on the first pitch
Stubbed Out: Nats ticket resellers whiff on the first pitch Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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The crowd at Nationals Park on Opening Day was officially announced as 39,055. Nowhere near that many people showed up.

But even the inflated official figure—which is based on tickets sold, not bodies through the turnstiles—represented the smallest Opening Day crowd here since baseball returned to D.C. in 2005. It was also the smallest crowd (and one of only two non-sellouts) in the Major Leagues that day.

Nats management blames Mother Nature for all the no-shows, and, sure, the weather was lousy: The game-time temperature was 41 degrees, and it had been drizzling since morning. “Not a great day for baseball,” said Dave Jageler early into his first shift of the season as a Nats’ play-by-play man.

But the forecasts of a small turnout for the opener were being issued long before the first raindrops fell. Dana Terman, a Nats fan from Gaithersburg, knows too much for his own liking about the lack of attention, and dollars, being paid.

Terman had called me up with a tale of woe about his debacle of an attempt at ticket brokering. It started last year, when he says he’d bought a “few dozen” $15 tickets to Opening Day 2010, with the Nats hosting the Philadelphia Phillies, and sold them easily for $35 apiece. So this year, he bought a whole lot more tickets to the opening-day game against Atlanta Braves. He figured he’d flip ’em just as easily.

As it turned out, Terman was one of the few folks to use a ticket from his own stash. A day after the game, Terman was still in possession of about 15/16ths of his massive inventory.

“A lot of those empty seats were mine,” he says with an embarrassed laugh.

Terman requested that the exact number of tickets he got stuck with and amount of money he lost on his ticket brokering foray not be published.

After all, he’s got a reputation as a brilliant dealmaker to uphold.

Terman, you see, could be the greatest Monopoly player this country has ever produced: He won the U.S. Monopoly Championship twice, in 1977 and 1979, and was the runner-up in 1983. He came in second in the World Championships, also.

“The same skills I use in business, I use at Monopoly,” Terman told The Washington Post in 1981.

But life is not always a board game, and the “buy everything” strategy favored by tournament Monopoly players worked against Terman in the ticket-resale realm. Terman clearly wasn’t the only prospector left holding a bundle of Nats tickets. The local Fox affiliate was among many news organizations reporting that Nats opening day seats were offered for as little as 75 cents from Stubhub and other online ticket services.

“I mean, it’s Opening Day!” he says.

Opening Day used to mean something here. Especially here, actually. The opening of baseball season in Washington used to be called the Presidential Opener, because from 1910 through 1970, the president of the United States either showed up to throw out the first pitch, or had a damn good excuse for not showing up: Woodrow Wilson sent his vice president to Griffith Stadium in 1920, for example, because he’d had a stroke; Franklin Roosevelt skipped a few for World War II in the 1940s; and, in 1968, Lyndon Johnson was still dealing with the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination a week before the Senators opened their home season against the Cleveland Indians. But pretty much every other year, the president made the game. And so did fans: Except for that 1968 game, which drew just 32,068 fans while portions of the town were still smoldering, Opening Days in D.C. typically sold out.

At 55, Terman is old enough to have lived through an era when the first baseball game of the season was a hot ticket, no matter how lousy the home team was or what squad was visiting. A diehard Washington Senators fan, Terman, according to The Washington Post archives, was a member of the Jim French Fan Club, a group dedicated to the underdog catcher who rode the Senators’ bench between 1965 and 1971. (French’s career major-league stats: .196 batting average and 5 home runs).

While ruminating on why Opening Day was such a bust this year, Terman realized his board-game strategy wasn’t the only part of his past that caused him to over-inflate the value of an Opening Day ticket. His age and love of baseball betrayed him, too.

“It’s that 33 years without baseball in this town after the Senators left,” he says. “Unless you’re as old as me, people don’t have the tradition here with baseball, with Opening Day, that I have. It doesn’t mean the same.”

Last year, the locals’ baseball apathy wasn’t obvious in the secondary-ticket market, but only because the opponent was the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phils were coming off a second straight World Series appearance, and have a fan base that holds Opening Day as sacred—and travels really well. Terman easily doubled his money on his ticket purchases for the 2010 opener. Atlanta Braves fans, though, won’t even travel to downtown Atlanta for a playoff game. So Opening Day tickets were either going to Nats fans or to nobody.

Terman got more calls from nobody.

Phil Wood, who hosts the Nationals’ official postgame radio show and knows more about D.C. baseball than anybody, agrees with Terman’s assertion that Opening Day lost its allure here in the years between when the Senators fled town (1971) and the Nats showed up (2005).

“That 33-year gap meant the fans who recalled the tradition of the Presidential Opener were nearing retirement age,” Wood says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But they’re not the consumer MLB is looking for first and foremost.” Barack Obama, too, declined to show up to throw out the first pitch. The most prominent elected official taking part was D.C. Mayor Vince Gray, who was booed.

Andrew Feffer, the Nats’ chief operating officer, says that he doesn’t expect the Presidential Opener to ever become the norm here again because of post-9/11 security concerns. He says the team is hoping to “establish a tradition” that is “uniquely Washington” for Opening Day, citing the inviting of five top military officials to throw out first through fifth pitches to this year’s game. “It doesn’t have to be the president who shows up,” Feffer says.

Several dozen miles to the north, in a city that lacks presidents or large numbers of generals, opening day tickets to Camden Yards were still a hot item.

Baltimore’s baseball buzz had nothing to do with the opponent, the ho-hum Detroit Tigers. And it was hardly a product of the home team’s recent glories: Like the Nats, the O’s finished dead last in their division last year.

All the same, Baltimore’s Craigslist last week featured pleas for tickets that included words like “Desperate!!!” and “I’ll pay triple face.” The appeals appeared well before weather forecasters projected a sunny, 80-degree day—and before the Orioles opened their season with a three-game road sweep at Tampa Bay. (Awesome trivia: The O’s got their third road win of the season Sunday afternoon, hours before the Washington Wizards got their third road win of the season.)

Baltimore’s Opening Day ritual, of course, has been in place since 1954. And by game day, online sites were asking $400 for a pair in the outfield. “Bride and Groom Need Opening Day Tickets,” announced another Craigslist post. “Got married yesterday in downtown. Want to go to Opening Day to celebrate!!! Will take anything – uppers or lowers. Budget is 100-150.”

That ad was placed by O’s fans Scott and Rebecca Zakheim, who got married Sunday at the Hyatt Regency Inner Harbor. Scott says an altruistic Baltimore broker responded and agreed to meet them at Pickles Pub and, though the scalper got “many better offers on the street,” gave the newlyweds a discount at $150 a pair. “It was a little wedding miracle,” says Scott.

Meanwhile, D.C. ticket entrepreneurs like Terman were stuck with piles of unused tickets that were no longer worth that amount in, well, Monopoly money.

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