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Weak attendance could be a National emergency

WASHINGTON – Stan Kasten's two families converged this week. Down south, his daughter graduated from the University of Florida. And here, where he's president of the Washington Nationals, his baby turned a month old.

Nationals Park, the city's $611 million gift to bring baseball back after a 34-year hiatus, is a perfectly acceptable new stadium. It is not transcendent like its Beltway neighbor, Camden Yards in Baltimore, and not a billion-dollar homage to gluttony like the new Yankee Stadium will be. It is a good place to take the family for $5 a ticket, grab a drink in the packed center-field bar, watch a footrace involving people wearing giant foam heads of dead presidents, ogle the HD video screen and soak in a gorgeous day like Sunday, when the sun beamed, a breeze whistled through the Southeast and the game-time temperature registered at 72.

Not even the perfect afternoon could fill the stadium for the second time, and it may be a while until the Nationals play to another sellout. Since packing Nationals Park on Opening Day and watching Ryan Zimmerman christen it with a game-ending home run, fans have been curiously absent. On Sunday, the Nationals' announced paid attendance was 30,564, just above the 41,222-seat stadium's average of 29,686 that ranks in the bottom half of baseball.

"Our attendance has been terrific," Kasten said. "Whether people are sitting in those seats or not, more and more are coming in."

Kasten is either an optimist, a great façade builder or a man with a plan he doesn't want to share – or, perhaps, all three. Because his public stance on the new stadium falling short of anticipated attendance is surprisingly calm, even when small pieces of evidence stack into one worrisome situation.

The Nationals' season-ticket base, though up from 15,000 last season to 18,000, remains significantly short of the 22,500 sold during their first season in 2005 after moving from Montreal. They're almost guaranteed to finish with the worst attendance in all numbers – total, average and percentage – for a new stadium since Cincinnati opened Great American Ball Park in 2003. In Washington's low point, the second game in Nationals Park actually had worse attendance than the second game at decrepit RFK Stadium last year.

"Sounds like you're a lot more concerned about this than me," Kasten said.

Perhaps so, though Kasten can't ignore the games on television where it looks as though the Nationals are playing to a crowd of ushers. The President seats, positioned behind home plate, go for more than $300 apiece, and they're selling like underwear at a nudist colony. Every pitch, the view is the same: hitter, catcher, umpire and about 25 of their unoccupied blue friends.

There are explanations. The NHL's Capitals and NBA's Wizards each made playoff runs in the same season for the first time in more than two decades. The weather, especially for the Nationals' second game, was miserable. More than anything, though, an unlikely culprit can account for the paltry behind-the-plate attendance.

Part of Washington's allure, when Major League Baseball planned the move from Montreal, involved the potential fan base. Smart, fanatical and, best of all, with loads of disposable income.

Then Jack Abramoff tried to buy off all of Washington. New lobbying laws soon followed, and now the maximum gift given to a lawmaker cannot exceed $50. Which means all the Presidential tickets – $325 for single-game ones, $335 on Saturday and $400 for the front row, all more than the best seat at Yankee Stadium, which goes for $250 – that should have gone from lobbyist to Congressman to hard-working staffer no longer exist, and the market won't get any hotter unless the Nationals do, too.

"That's a factor," Kasten said. "The economy is a factor. Where we are in our development cycle in our team is a factor. I don't think (we're going to lower ticket prices). Not really. It's not something we're anticipating.

"It's clear to me that when we turn the corner as a team, they'll come."

And this, more than anything, inspires Kasten's calmness. He sees improvement at the major-league level, Sunday's 5-2 win against Pittsburgh was the Nationals' eighth in 10 games. He understands contending this year is a long shot. There's not enough talent. The Nationals are Zimmerman and enough question marks to outfit the Riddler.

Their farm system is more an exclamation point. Since taking over in 2006, Kasten has made rebuilding the Nationals' farm system a priority. One of his first hires was Mike Rizzo, the scouting impresario who ran the Arizona Diamondbacks' drafts that have borne perhaps the best team in baseball. In last year's draft, the Nationals reloaded a system that had gone dry, and now, Kasten said with pride, the cumulative record of Washington's minor-league affiliates is the fourth best in baseball.

The evolution of Washington's franchise will be one of the big stories in baseball over the next five years. With any success, the President seats will start selling, and the $400,000-a-year suites that are two-thirds sold will be the hottest non-Redskins ticket in town, and between the gate receipts and the money from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, the Nationals will turn into a financial powerhouse.

From there, they'll pick up a hole-plugging free agent or two. Never a huge contract, because, as Kasten said, "I don't have to remind you how fraught with peril the haphazard pursuit of free agency is."

Translation: We don't need a Barry Zito.

For now, the Nationals want to make the present as palatable as possible. They use gimmicks to help create what Kasten deems "an experience" – kids standing at each position on the field when the Nationals run out for the first inning, the Presidents Race where George and Abe go head to head and other such events that both enhance the entertainment and take away from the fact that the baseball isn't quite there.

"It's going to happen," Kasten said. "I don't know which comes first. But neither one depends on the other. We're going to continue to have the best experience we can at the ballpark. At the same time we're building a franchise."

Kasten has time. His baby is only a month old. He can only hope it starts walking sooner than later.