TAMPA, Fla. — Move over Red Sox-Yankees, there’s a new rivalry brewing in baseball.
The Washington Nationals are tired of Phillies fans taking over their ballpark, so they’re trying to ban those red-clad rowdies from purchasing tickets for the first series between the teams in May.
Last month, the Nationals launched a “Take Back the Park” initiative designed to lock out Phillies fans. The team made tickets for a three-game series on May 4-6 available only to season ticketholders and local fans who reside in Washington, D.C., Maryland or Virginia.
“Our campaign ignites what should be a natural rivalry between a great young team in Washington and an established veteran team in Philadelphia,” Nationals chief operating officer Andy Feffer told The Associated Press. “This is an opportunity to give our fans the chance to make Nationals Park uniquely ours — it’s our park, our team, our town and our time, and we want the hometown crowd to be here to be a part of it.”
The initiative received more attention in Philadelphia than in D.C. It was front-page news in the Philadelphia Inquirer and a hot topic on sports talk radio.
“The Nats, their manager and their fans are doing a lot of squawking for a team that has accomplished nothing,” said Glen Macnow, afternoon host on 94-WIP FM in Philadelphia. “Win a couple of games, show you’ve got more than just potential and get back to us.”
The ticket campaign was just the start. Some of the Nationals then started talking trash in spring training.
Manager Davey Johnson said he prefers his starting rotation over any in the league, adding that his top three pitchers match up with Philadelphia’s star-studded cast. There aren’t many who would choose Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman over Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels.
But the Phillies weren’t offended.
“He should take them, because that’s his only option,” Lee said. “It’s what he’s got to do.”
Johnson’s boast may put some added pressure on his young pitchers.
“Those guys have established their reputation and they’re big-name guys,” Gonzalez said. “We want to try and stay with them, try and compete with them, keep humble and fly under the radar and let everyone assume what they want to assume. That speaks highly of us that Davey would say that. It’s an honor.
“At the same time, it’s a lot of shoes to fill.”
The Phillies have captured five straight NL East titles, won the 2008 World Series and had the best record in the majors each of the last two seasons. The Nationals, on the other hand, haven’t had a winning record since 2003 when they were the Montreal Expos.
It didn’t stop Washington’s Brad Lidge from making this bold statement on the team’s website.
“Probably the most talented team I’ve ever been on, and I’ve been on some great teams,” Lidge said.
Lidge spent the past four seasons with the Phillies, helping them win it all in ’08 by going 48 for 48 in save opportunities.
But his former teammates have no problem with Lidge’s optimism.
“At this point, there’s no games going on, so everything out there is a bunch of smoke whatever it may be,” Phillies outfielder Hunter Pence said. “Whether it’s the Phillies are greater than the Nationals or the Nationals are greater than the Phillies, it’s empty smoke until you go out there and play the games. You have to earn everything. No one is better than anyone. We are all 0-0.”
Lidge is one of three Nationals who earned a World Series ring in Philadelphia. Outfielder Jayson Werth and reliever Chad Durbin also played for the ’08 Phillies.
Laynce Nix made a reverse move, traveling north on I-95 from Washington to Philadelphia.
“It felt like home games for the Phillies,” he said of games at Nationals Park. “The Phillies fans seem to be more supportive and that’s what you get. I don’t know if they can manipulate that the way they are advertising, but it’ll be interesting to see.”
As for the brash talk coming from the Nationals, Nix simply shrugged it off.
“I don’t even think it’s out of line,” he said. “They’re professionals over there and they show up in spring training expecting to win.”
While the Nationals’ front office wants to keep Phillies fans on the outside, not all the players care that much.
“Some guys pay attention to that,” Nationals center fielder Roger Bernadina said. “Philly fans are really into the game. They make it more exciting at Nationals Park. That’s what I’m thinking.”
Stay tuned. One thing’s for sure, however, this Nationals-Phillies rivalry has a long way to go to catch the Sawx-Bombers. There was, after all, a ton of media attention for the first meeting between the Red Sox and Yankees in March.
And they’ll do it 18 more times when the games count.
“This definitely has the history and tradition behind it,” Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson said. “The fact that the two teams are close to each other, that adds to it. The fans add to it a lot more because the players don’t hate each other. There’s no actual hatred between the two teams. Among the fans, that’s a different story.”
Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher knows plenty about rivalries. He went to Ohio State, which has a long history with Michigan. Then he played for Oakland and the Chicago White Sox before joining New York.
“I experienced A’s-Giants, White Sox-Cubs. This one is on another stratosphere,” he said about Yankees-Red Sox. “You have to love rivalries. I don’t care whether it’s spring training or someone’s back yard, if you are a rival, we are going to try and beat each other every single time and you have to buy into that because these are two franchises that have been at the top for years and years.
“In sports, it’s all about rivalries. You have to have that.”
What’s Swisher’s take on the Nationals trying to stir things up with the Phillies?
“With all the moves the Nationals have made, maybe they are trying to build a rivalry, but it takes time,” Swisher said. “You have to win. You have to do it, and there has to be that extra fire that’s not there for every other game.”
At least the Nationals stoked interest among their fans.
“We did exactly what we set out to do,” Feffer said. “Our fans are energized and ready for an exciting season ahead.”