Steve Miller – Staff Writer
For the first time in my young journalistic career, I had the privilege of attending a Major League Baseball game with media credentials, representing Flyer News. The game was Aug. 5, at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., where the hometown Washington Nationals were set to take on the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The game was a hot event in the nation’s capital as the Nationals were giving away 20,000 Chia Pets in the likeness of fan-favorite outfielder Jayson Werth. A Chia Pet, if you’re unfamiliar, is a ceramic bust that sprouts green foliage in the place of hair. It is an unorthodox promotion for a baseball stadium to say the least.
Nevertheless, the Nationals were capitalizing on a marketing opportunity with Werth’s shaggy visage, which was also the subject of a popular promotion in 2014. Last season, the Nationals gave away a Werth garden gnome, attracting a sellout crowd on an ordinary weeknight baseball game. Looking to replicate their success, they conjured up the Chia Pet idea.
For me, the Chia Pet was a great excuse to contact the Nationals after I had reported on the garden gnome promotion in a spring edition of Flyer News. As a result of the club’s generosity, I found myself riding an elevator up to the large media center atop Nationals Park.
“It’s a big crowd, but not nearly as big as last year,” Paul Fritschner, a local Nationals fan, told me.
Fritschner, who is a first year at Xavier University, was my main source for the story on the garden gnome. He was the first to arrive at Nationals Park that day—a full two and a half hours before the stadium even opened—and watched as thousands of eager fans lined up early to get their hands on the revolutionary promotion.
Some fans turned around and listed their gnomes on EBay, which turned out to be a smart business venture. The gnomes routinely drew in over $100.
Within minutes of the gates opening for the Chia Pet, they too were listed on EBay. However, they’ve only sold for around $50 per pet.
After I got all set up in the press box, I descended back down to field level, taking advantage of my media privileges. There, I discussed the promotion with fans and Nationals employees.
“I’m growing it as soon as I get to work tomorrow,” Billy Armstrong, an excited Nationals fan, said. Armstrong said that he had owned Chia Pets growing up and was thrilled to see one given out at Nationals Park.
“I know the gnome was popular last year, but you [won’t] find out [until] after the giveaway,” F.P. Santangelo, Washington’s television color commentator, said.
Santangelo was right. Many people expected the Chia Pet to be just as popular as the gnome, but the announced attendance for the Chia was 37,000, as compared to the more than 40,000 that showed up for the gnome.
I also spoke with Nationals radio broadcaster Dave Jageler.
“I think the demand for the Werth gnome was as large as for any promotion that I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I think just the whole look of the gnome was really cool, and I’m sure the Werth Chia has got to be a similar thing. It speaks to the strong fan base that they have a connection to the players and they have those special items as a collector’s item.”
For the Nationals, who have only played in Washington for 10 seasons, marketing collectible promotions is a smart business venture. Before they finally made the playoffs in the 2012 season, they struggled to get many fans at all through the gates. And while the promotions may bring fans in, ultimately it’s winning that will keep them there.
I learned that first hand at this game. After Washington’s bullpen squandered it’s one-run lead, the Diamondbacks began feasting on a depleted pitching staff. Soon, the 37,000 strong was just a shell of its prior self.
By the middle innings, the game was dragging and only the most die-hard of fans remained in their seats. It got to a point that I could hear the calls of individual umpires on the field. It was not a good sign for the Nationals, who were trying to make up ground on the New York Mets in the National League playoff race.
When the game mercifully concluded for Washington’s pitchers, I followed the other writers down to the manager’s postgame press conference. It was a somber scene for manager Matt Williams, who has dealt this season with a wildly underperforming club.
“I think it looks bad because of what happened,” Williams said after the 11-4 defeat. “Our guys are not trying to go out there and give runs up, that’s for sure.”
It seemed as though all the questions pertained to the actual on-field game, so I deemed it inappropriate to ask about the grass-growing giveaway and if Jayson Werth’s performance was in any way connected to his Chia Pet.
Following the press conference, I wound my way around the underbelly of the park to the Nationals’ clubhouse, where I assumed all writers had admittance.
It turned out that I was far from the truth as I was not permitted to enter the dome of baseball royalty as part of my press privileges. Thus, I ushered myself to the nearest exit and into the warm night of Washington, D.C., taking with me the memory of an unbelievable experience and the satisfaction of a stomach full of free press box frozen yogurt.
Photo by Steve Miller.