Nats aren’t first to protect home turf for local fans

Predictably enough, there’s been some discontent from the City of Brotherly Love about the Nationals’ announcement of the “Take Back the Park” initiative, a well-intentioned effort to put tickets for the team’s May 4-6 series against the Phillies at Nationals Park in the hands of D.C.-area fans instead of having the park packed with Philly Phanatics.

In a series of Thursday afternoon tweets, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat representing Pennsylvania, fired off the following plea: “I’m calling on the Nationals to reverse course on a reported plan to block Phillies fans from buying tickets to games at Nationals Park. Phillies have some of the best fans in the world. They shouldn’t be left out in the cold because the Nats want a stronger home field adv.”

OK, so a Keystone State politician wants Philadelphia fans guaranteed equal access to games in D.C.? No news there. Politicians know how to curry favor with the voters who keep them in office. By talking up for the Phils’ faithful, Casey keeps his local folks happy and comes off as a community-minded sort who doesn’t want Philly fans prevented from taking the short trip down Interstate 95, contributing to the Maryland coffers by paying tolls that have risen since last season and winding up in Washington, where they can contribute to the tax base of the nation’s capital.

Casey acts like this is something new. Perhaps a little history lesson is in order, since the state of Pennsylvania has faced this (warning: sarcasm ahead) outrageous attempt to tilt home field advantage to the home team before. (And maybe the esteemed senator from the Keystone State should acquaint himself with the entire notion of home field advantage.)

Back in 2001, a scant year after he’d become majority owner of the Washington Capitals and a part-owner of the Washington Wizards and the local TicketMaster empire that had been built by the late Abe Pollin, former AOL executive Ted Leonsis was frustrated at the high numbers of visiting fans who often invaded MCI Center. Back in the days before the red was rocked and the fury was unleashed, it wasn’t uncommon to have fans from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, New York and other rabid NHL hotbeds show up in droves in Chinatown, unable to secure tickets in their own home cities but willing to make a road trip to D.C., where ducats were plentiful (and often less expensive than wherever they traveled from).

The Penguins fans from Pittsburgh were the worst, turning The Phone Booth into Civic Arena South. It wasn’t that they weren’t good fans; they were often rowdy, used profane and abusive language, and took the notion of good-natured rooting for their team to an extreme level.

So Leonsis figured out a way to keep the Steel City crew from invading D.C. Before a 2001 first-round playoff series between the Capitals and Penguins, Leonsis wrote a computer program for TicketMaster that prevented anyone from the area codes or ZIP codes around Pittsburgh from purchasing tickets, ensuring a more friendly environment for the home team. Folks with ZIP and area codes in D.C., Maryland and northern Virginia got to speed past the Pittsburghers online; if you wanted to buy tickets and you were from the ‘Burgh, yinz had to schlep from the land of the three rivers to D.C. and take your chances at the ticket window.

Leonsis answered his critics this way: “Pretty cool, isn’t it? I got a lot of e-mails from Pittsburgh saying I was mean-spirited and unfair. I don’t care. I’m going to keep doing it.”

Needless to say, the folks from Pittsburgh weren’t thrilled at this roadblock. But it stood, and it’s been used since, like when the teams met in 2009 in the playoffs. Now the Capitals solved the issue by starting to win, becoming a cold-weather phenomenon in a city that wasn’t exactly hockey-friendly and creating demand for their own tickets in their own market. The Nationals are on the verge of doing this. The parallel is striking.

Eventually, there won’t be busloads of Philly fans motoring down for every series at Nationals Park. One day in the not-too-distant future, we’ll laugh about the days when former Nationals president Stan Kasten actually put blocs of tickets aside for a season opener, ensuring that Philly fans were seated with other Philly fans and able to root en masse for the visiting team (in fairness to Kasten, it was a business decision based solely on the fact that sold tickets and fans in the stands equal money made, something that the home team fans weren’t doing, even for an opener).

For now, we’ll laugh - at Sen. Casey.

C’mon, there aren’t more pressing matters in D.C. for you to be handling?

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