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Washington’s Embargo Against… Philadelphia

You can’t shoot everyone you don’t like, even if you are a big kahuna in the world’s most powerful capital. Officials in Washington, D.C., often turn to trade sanctions instead - which is why we have embargoes against Havana, Pyongyang, Tehran, and now, Philadelphia.

Sanctions don’t work. They just let big shots feel like they are doing something.

Philadelphians did not need a nuclear weapons program to make this roster of the unwanted-in-Washington; they just had to have the best baseball team in the National League East five years in a row. This set the dominoes in motion. The Phillies have sold out their home stadium, Citizens Bank Ballpark, 214 consecutive times, which sent Phillies fans scrambling up and down the East Coast to find a place to watch their team. This, in turn, means everyone else has to put up with displaced Philadelphia sports fans.

If you live in Nebraska, you might not appreciate what this means. To other Easterners, however, Philadelphia fans are the Visigoths of the sports world. They specialize in sacking cities, including their own. It doesn’t matter whether the Philadelphia team wins or loses. A colleague of mine who is a big Green Bay Packers fan attended, with his young wife, the infamous 2004 NFL playoff game in which Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb completed his fourth-and-26 pass with about a minute to go, allowing the Eagles to send the game into overtime, whereupon they won. Literally fearing for their safety as they made their way back to Amtrak, the young couple ditched their Packers garb and pretended to have converted. The Inquisition probably hired Philadelphia fans to be its enforcers.

Many Phillies fans travel to New York to watch their team. Tickets are easy to get because the Mets have not been drawing well at Citi Field. Nobody in New York really cares about a Philadelphia invasion, for the simple reason that nobody in New York really cares about Philadelphia. New York’s tradition is to take in huddled masses from everywhere. Watch the Phillies, see a Broadway show, stay, leave, whatever. Just remember to tip your cabbie and we’re good.

But Philadelphians are getting the cold shoulder in Washington, D.C., which has been home to the Nationals - previously the Montreal Expos - since 2005. Like the Mets, the Nationals have plenty of room to accommodate Phillies fans. The Nats drew just under 2 million fans last year, ranking 21st in attendance among the 30 major league teams. The Phillies, with more than 3.6 million paying customers, ranked first, ahead of even the mighty Yankees.

So when the Phillies came to Washington for a three-game series this weekend, you might have expected the Nationals’ management to welcome their fans. After all, Philadelphia and Washington share a common currency (sort of like the euro), and heaven knows Washington can use all the money it can get. But Nationals’ management launched a “Take Back the Park” campaign, hoping to keep the Phillies fans, their cheers and banners, their heckling and beer-buying, away from the Nationals’ spiffy four-year-old park in southeast D.C.

When single-game tickets went on sale in February, the Nationals refused, for a month, to sell tickets for this weekend’s series to anyone whose credit card did not have a billing address in the capital region. The Nationals also offered free tickets to another game, later in the season, to anyone who bought a ticket to this weekend’s contests. The logic was that the two-for-one deal would appeal mainly to people who live in the area.

Did anyone really think this would keep Philadelphia fans away from these games? Or, to put the question another way: Have the Nationals heard of StubHub? Giving tepid Nationals fans a chance to buy tickets ahead of rabid Philadelphia partisans created a gray market that allowed Washingtonians to buy the tickets, resell them and head off to their cocktail parties on Embassy Row, which incidentally should be Phillies-fan-free.

We can’t seem to stop Iran from getting nuclear centrifuges, but we can somehow prevent Philadelphia baseball fans from acquiring Nationals tickets?

The funniest part of this story is that the Washington Nationals were in first place heading into the weekend series. The Phillies, off to a so-so start, were in fourth. This is not a huge surprise to baseball fans, who are well aware that the Nationals have an exciting young team and a much improved farm system.

Building a good team is the first step in putting fans in the seats. Sustaining a good team over several years is the second step. This is how the Phillies became baseball’s biggest-drawing team last year, for the first time in their long history. The formula doesn’t always work. Atlanta was a powerhouse team for many years, but the Braves play in a part of the country where football, barbecue and church dominate weekend life, so their attendance is seldom better than fair. They do the best they can, and they sell tickets to anyone who wants to buy them.

The Miami, née Florida, Marlins often find their fans outnumbered in their own park by visitors and transplants from other cities, especially New York and Boston during interleague play. The Marlins handle the situation with laid-back South Beach charm, and everyone has a good time.

As Philadelphia fans planned their own “March on Washington” this weekend, Nationals’ management hinted darkly that contingency plans were ready.

Great. Washington has a secret plan in case trade sanctions don’t stop the opposition. The Castros and the ayatollahs must be terrified.

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