Tuesday, January 09, 2007
The Interview Continues
As I wrote back on November 14 during his introductory news conference, Manny Acta took the stage by storm as the New Manager of Our Washington Nationals, holding the attention of every single member of, what many would say, is a very tough and cynical Washington, DC press corp (I should know--I am a part of it). For 40 minutes, Acta stood on stage, taking and answering questions. During that entire time, Team President, Stan Kasten, and General Manager, Jim Bowden, stood on the side--saying nothing, because no one was interested in them. Manny Acta showed Great Charisma that fall day, the presence that fills a room and draws everyone toward him. Everyone in The Washington Square Office Building that day knew, right then and there, that this guy might well be special. Then, yesterday, in my brief meeting with Manny in Bowden's office, that resilient Acta smile just grabbed me. He was the first one to jump up after Mr. Kasten introduced me, warmly shaking my right hand while grabbing ahold of my left shoulder--honestly pleased to meet me.
So, I asked Mr. Kasten whether, if the Nationals were in the hunt for Free Agents, and the current condition of the Franchise, can a Rookie Manager attract players to Washington, DC?
“I hate to be cynical, but players get really really interested in franchises that give them the most money at any given time. That’s number One. Number Two, we’ve taken a tremendous step forward with the naming of our new manager. Manny Acta is an attraction to players, both Hispanic and non Hispanic. He is seen as someone popular with players even though he’s a toughminded, highly knowledgeable, highly experienced Manager. I think he is a great combination of all those things. And, in time, when we are players in the free agent market—I think he is going to be a huge plus and attraction to players.”
But, in the short term--Manny's presence in the Domincan Republic raises the profile on the Nationals in Latin America?
“Lets face it. This is a country that is so important to Major League Baseball, in terms of producing talent. And, when that country (The D.R.) looked to find someone to run their national team, they chose Manny Acta. That says an awful lot. So now, we have the largest, most prominent, non playing figure in the sport (in the D.R.), as our Manager. So, for sure, two things, the Esmailyn Gonzalez (16 year old talented youngster) signing and Manny Acta (as Manager) are big factors. Big Shots in the arms for us.
YOU HAVE NAME RECOGNITON?-(SBF) “No question, No Question. There are a lot W caps, more and more—we shipped a lot down there, we are going to continue doing it. A lot of Curly W's floating all around the island."
That's all well and good, but what if, on the field, someone like, Cristian Guzman, is as terrible as he was in 2005? Will the Manager bench him?
"That’s Manny’s Call. Manny’s going to play the guys that give him the best chance to win. I was not here in 05. I do know what he was before that. If he can return to a facsimile of that (pre-2005), we are going to be very happy. We are going to have a good defensive team up the middle. In fact, we have good defense at the corners. In fact, we are going to be a good defensive team. But, as Manny showed in the World Baseball Classic, if someone is not getting the job done, he’s going to make a move. He explained that to Alfonso Soriano. I am sure he will explain that to ANYONE on THIS team!"
Mr. Kasten went on to claim: "I do think we will compete. I am sure we will compete. I don’t think Manny Acta will accept anything less. Again, I think every night, we will show you, what we are on the way to becoming. That’s the most important thing to me."
Competing is one thing, but what about your starting pitching when you are down by 5 runs after the 3rd inning?
"It would be a worry of ours. We have questions about our starting pitching, obviously, that’s the focus of where we are. I think we have a good or better than average offense of position players. I think we are significantly above average in the bullpen. Starting pitching is the question mark. That’s why we are spending so much time, working on that. At last count, we have 37 pitchers coming to spring training. We’ve signed up everyone that we can to give them a chance. Its going to be fun. I don’t know what five pitchers will emerge as or starters, but some of them will, and we are not stopping there. There are more coming."
Is this why "The Chief"--Chad Cordero, has been rumored on the trading blocks?
"He's a 24 year old All Star Closer, in a premiere position, obviously people are interested. Equally obviously, we haven’t seen anything that makes us want to trade him. If that changes, I guess a deal would happen. But, so far there hasn’t been anything tempting. (SBF says, He is the scariest closer in the game, no lead his safe for that man.) Mr. Kasten replied, "That can get old pretty quick."
I should note. that while exiting the brief meeting with the Senior Baseball Operation's folks, I turned to Jim Bowden, pointed right at him and stated: "If you trade The Chief, you better get something really good back in return. I love THE CHIEF!!" Bowden got this ear to ear grin going, nodding his head up and down, knowingly. Acta, Bob Boone and Dana Brown just busted out laughing. Stan Kasten just shook his head back and forth.
The $611 Million New Stadium currently being built on South Capitol Street has been controversial since day one. There have been more twists and turns then anyone of us wished to hear about or relive, again. What contact and feeling have you gotten from New DC Mayor, Adrian Fenty, During the Great Debates over the Stadium Deal, he was ardently, against the city spending the money?
“Apparently, all our ownership group is really impressed with him. In his role as a City Council person he was opposed to the way this deal came together. Now, since he is the Mayor, he has inherited a deal, and he comes in with the the idea of being the guy that makes it work. That’s a great attitude to have. And, so far, all we’ve seen out of him is a real, genuine willingness to termination, to get it to work. So, we think, its very positive."
But, what has come to the attention of just about everyone is the real potential of completing a stadium with no exterior charm. Will this ballpark look beautiful, from the streets of DC?
"And, that’s not what we were given. Its kind of a bland design, which will require an awful lot of sprucing up, spending a lot of money to carve out, extra spaces in the ballpark, to fill those spaces with entertainment alternatives-and we are doing that. And its going to be terrific. If you have seen the latest artist renditions online, it’s a far cry from where it was 6 months ago. And all that is due to the Lerners commitment and planning. The exterior of the stadium will be attractive, but it won’t be the traditional brick thing, but, I can tell you, that I just drove over the Douglas Bridge, this weekend, looking at all the vantage points, and coming over into DC, and as you see, the stadium, with the Capitol in the background, and the (Washington) Mounument just a little bit over to the left and the west, it’s a spectacular, compelling, inspirational view. So, I think everyone is going to be happy with it.
But, many folks are very interested in seeing Limestone and Glass surrounding the entire park, to make it fit into that Monument Style, Look and Feel of Washington, DC? Will The Lerner's pony up the extra cash to make it happen?
“I don’t know about that one, we have spent a whole lot of money, on the interior of the ballpark, and I don’t think we are spending too much attention to the exterior of the ballpark. (Finally, Mr. Kasten stated) "No current plans on the exterior...but that's constantly under review."
What about parking for the average fans, like me?
"There is going to be parking. We are assembling it now. There will be a number of lots from 100 cars to 1000 cars, sprinkled all through the area. We are working on those issues. We are working on access issues. Which are as important as physical parking garages. South Capitol will not be the main way to get to the ballpark. You will need M and the side streets. And people will come across the Douglas Bridge from the south. We are going to spend a lot of money educating people, encourage people, to ramp up their use of Metro, because that is still going to be the best way to get to the park. This Metro Station (Navy Yard) is much closer to the New Ballpark than the station at RFK. And, its closer to the fan areas, where everyone is going to want to be, on the north side of the ballpark, where all the entertainment is going to be. So Metro is going to be a better choice."
What about the rumored option of parking at RFK and shuttling over?, I asked.
"The Shuttle from RFK is still being considered. Not sure if it will be free or not."
Since Mr. Kasten mentioned how much effort The Lerners are making to improve the ballpark experience, once you get inside the new stadium, it was only appropiate to question just what good all that might do--if the team struggles on the field, and doesn't retain fan interest, and the casual fan just walks away?
“I am always hartended by the example of the Redskins, when I see the type of loyalty you can generate in the market, through good years and bad. That’s very encouraging to me. I hope to build something that will generate that same kind of support. I know we are not there yet, but that’s certaintly what we hope to be."
"We have talked at length at what we think we need to do to build a team. We haven’t pulled any punches. We have been straight as we can be as to where we are now, What we think you need to do, to get there, and moving full speed ahead along those lines. We’ve been direct with everyone, told everyone, what we are doing, We have never misled anyone or lied to anyone about what we are doing. And, we hope there is a certain core of fans in this town that appreciate what we are doing and what to get onboard and build with us together. That’s number 1."
"Number Two. A ballgame experience is more than just what’s happening on the field. Its also about what’s been happening off the field. Its about the comfort, the convenience, the entertainment and all of those things. We worked hard this past year to improve that, and hope to improve it more, as long as we are at RFK. But, I can tell you, its going to take a quantum leap when we move into the new park. And, the people (fans) who are here now, particularly Season Ticket holders, automatically get ahead of anyone that whats to join in, in '08. So, I am hoping a lot of people want to get on early, because I think there is a lot of belief in the marketplace, that we are going to be successful and the earlier you get on, the better you are going to be."
And, it was here that Mr. Kasten gave me the stunning news?
“Screech is being de-emphasized. For now, we will be greatly enhancing the image of the (Racing) Presidents. They are really popular. We are going to use them in a lot of different ways. When I got here, Screech was somewhat of a controversial figure. A lot of people were not enamored with Screech. He’s great with kids, and with you (SBF), but that’s about it. We are going to utilize them (The Presidents) much more, because they have become so popular. They are so much fun."
I had to say, I didn't know what to say (and that's very hard for me to do!!). Then, Mr. Kasten reassured me that Screech will still be around, doing many of his usual things, but he didn't exactly say what? Maybe, he's trying to let me down easy? You can bet I will be getting the scoop from MY BEST FRIEND, very soon. And, more importantly, in the space of 4 months, The African Queen has lost, Her Love--Alfonso Soriano, and now faces the possibility of seeing less of Screech!!! To say she was NOT HAPPY to hear this, was an UNDERSTATEMENT. Come ON Guys!! She came to 71 Games last season, and those two, are the MAJOR REASONS WHY!! Please, HELP ME!!--PLEASE!!
After being knocked out of my seat, and regaining composure, the ballpark questions continued. What about the Food Choices in the New Ballpark?
"Its going to change dramatically. We do want healthy choices, We want lower priced choices. But, we are also going to have some gourmet choices. Mainly keeping the basic core fan with basic quality stuff, that perhaps, he can afford. The biggest change is what you find in the premium areas, the higher end customer. Something we don’t have for any of those customers here (at RFK). And that’s a very important part of our business model. Its going take pressure off the average fan. We really need to get as much as we can out of the high end customer. At this park (RFK), we have no high end business, at all. It’s a major part of every teams performance. Right now, we are way, way behind."
In the new ballpark, there will be a great emphasis on the HIGH END, HIGH PAYING CUSTOMERS, and through out this interview, REVENUE STREAMS, to make all this happen was constantly emphasized. In fact, on South Capitol Street, there will not only be Suites, Diamond Club, A Club Level, but Premiem Seating--all of which, supposedly, will not drive the average fan out of the cost of attending a Nationals Game.
Mr. Kasten stated: "The Premium Areas pays alot of the freight, and takes pressure off, trying to drive everything else as hard as I do."
This driving of revenues apparently has a lot to with my two pet peeves, additional costs, Ownership has passed on to Season Ticket Holders, and those who park at RFK Stadium during its final season hosting The Washington Nationals.
“I think we were the last team in town to do that (Make The Early Season Exhibition Game Mandatory for Full Season Ticket Holders). Its part a charitable function. But, its again revenue. We are looking at all the ways we can to raise the revenues for the things we need to build in the (New) Stadium. It won’t give you a lot of comfort, but I do know in Atlanta, they have 2 exhibition games and they are both on the season ticket package." (And, on parking?) "The $15 is to balance the revenues to build this the right way, its just that simple. No one is putting any profit in their pocket. Professional market study shows that this was not a hard choice." (SBF-It also still didn't make me happy).
In Part 3, the final installment: More on Scouting, Payroll, Curly W versus DC Logo,MASN, Frank Robinson, Nick Johnson's return, RFK's last season, New Uniforms?, A Washington Baseball Hall of Fame, the Infamous Non-Soriano Trade and YOUR CHANCE TO MEET, CHAT OR GRIPE at Stan Kasten, Jim Bowden and Manny Acta. Its all coming next time.