Fans saying goodbye to Potomac Nationals as team heads south

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com and republished with permission. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

potomac nationals cap
The Potomac Nationals look for another great year in potentially their final season in Woodbridge. Here a hat and glove are on display during the team’s media day practice on Tuesday, April 2, 2019. (Courtesy InsideNova/Bill Kamenjar)

Gainesville resident Dave Stinson, a long-time fan of the Potomac Nationals, was among supporters in the stands for one of the team’s final games in Prince William County.

“It’s like most things in life, in general you don’t appreciate what you have until you lose it,” he said.

He will only have a few more chances to see the team in Prince William. The P-Nats, the high Class A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, plan to open the 2020 season at a new $35 million stadium in Fredericksburg. If they don’t make the playoffs this season and assuming the new stadium is ready by next spring, their final game in Prince William’s Pfitzner Stadium will be Aug. 29.

“I love baseball and will absolutely miss them,” Stinson said during a game against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans on Aug. 15.

Springfield resident John Ballenger and his wife brought their two sons, Lincoln, 7, and Hudson, 3, to the game. During the game, a Pelicans player gave Hudson a foul ball.

“He was super excited,” Ballenger said. “We are trying to convince him to play baseball next year. I think the baseball game solidifies the feeling of going to a game and feeling important.”

Minor-league games are rites of passage for some children. The P-Nats game was a test to see whether their sons could handle attending a Washington Nationals game. “Maybe in a year or so,” Ballenger said.

Team owner Art Silber, 79, bought the P-Nats when he was 49, about five years after the team moved to Prince William. The team was known as the Prince William Pirates and Cannons before becoming the Nationals in 2005. Silber formerly played minor league baseball in Kansas City and coached first base for the P-Nats on the weekends for over two decades. He said he’s thankful for the friends, memories and players he’s known over the years.

“Emotionally, it’s really difficult for me and my family,” Silber said. “For 30 years, we’ve been in and out of the ballpark…I’ve watched people grow old and they’ve watched me grow old.”

The road to the team leaving the county has been a long one.

“It is going to be very difficult to say goodbye to a lot of people who I’ve known for many years,” Silber said.

The team continued playing at the aging Pfitzner Stadium only because it received waivers from Minor League Baseball.

For years, Silber tried to secure a new home for the team in Prince William, settling on a site between Stonebridge at Potomac Town Center and Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center.

In 2017, the county considered a deal with Silber that would have built a stadium financed through county bonds, with the team paying roughly $2.7 million yearly for 30 years, as well as $450,000 in annual rent for the land.

But county supervisors were divided over the project, and the board ultimately rejected the plan.

“Quite candidly, the best thing that happened to us was the deal in Prince William didn’t happen,” Silber said. “I leave with nothing but the best memories and a tremendous sense of gratitude for all that we’ve had over the last couple of decades.”

The team’s stadium will be at Celebrate Virginia South off Interstate 95 near Central Park. In November, the Fredericksburg City Council unanimously agreed to pay $1.05 million to the team for 30 years – covering about 40 percent of the financing for the park. In exchange, the city will be able to use the stadium for events for up to 183 days a year.

“It is thrilling, absolutely thrilling,” Silber told InsideNoVa. “We’re looking forward to continuing to work with our partner, the Washington Nationals; they’re excited. It’s our opportunity to bring a first-class baseball facility to the Northern Virginia area.”

After the move to Fredericksburg, the team will have a new name, which has not been announced.

Wearing a P-Nats hat and an old Washington Nationals jersey, Matt Tillson, sophomore at James Madison University, also attended the P-Nats’ home game against the Pelicans. He hadn’t been to a game in eight years, but he drove to the ballpark to see the team a final time before they move. He remembers watching the P-Nats as a kid.

“They’re moving and it’s breaking my heart,” he said.

From his home in Fairfax County, he doesn’t think driving to Fredericksburg will be feasible.

Silber said he hopes to retain half of the current market of fans, but local fans not ready to make the trip may still see a few more games next spring.

He expects the new ballpark to be completed by April, but in case it’s not, he plans to renew the team’s lease agreement with the county for Pfitzner Stadium through December 2020. Silber has until Sept. 1 to notify the county of the team’s intent to renew its lease, according to the agreement.

If the new ballpark isn’t ready when the season starts, Silber said, the team could begin the season at Pfitzner and finish it at the new ballpark.

While Pftizner can seat about 5,200, the new ballpark will seat about 6,500 for games, Silber said. For concerts, the new ballpark will be able to fit 9,500 people. It will host 12 concerts a year for Celebrate Virginia.

Prince William Board At-large Chair Corey Stewart, who supported the 2017 deal, said he regrets that the county didn’t build a new stadium for the team. “If it were up to me, we would be constructing a new stadium right now and the P-Nats would be staying in Prince William County, but the votes [on the board] just weren’t there.”

If the county had issued bonds to the team for a new ballpark in the county, and if the team defaulted on repaying, the county would have been responsible for paying back the funds.

“Although that’s true, there was strong data to show that the team would’ve been successful in that location [in Woodbridge],” Stewart said.

Stewart said he expects the county will renew the P-Nats’ lease until December 2020.

“We’re really sad to see them going and we wish them luck,” he said. “I hope and I’m confident they’re going to do very well down in Fredericksburg.”

In 2018, the P-Nats sold only 50 season tickets, and the team has never sold more than 200 in a year, Silber said. Already the team has sold out 13 suites and received 1,800 season ticket reservations for the new ballpark.

In addition to providing a relaxing, family-friendly activity, minor-league teams also give players an opportunity to gain experience in hopes of moving up to the big leagues.

Fauquier County residents Lamar and Dottie Boone know that to be true firsthand. After retiring in 1993, Lamar Boone started working for the team’s booster club, which provides financial and other support for players. He was the booster club president for 21 years, and Dottie, his wife, was treasurer for 23 years. Their last year working with the booster club was 2017.

“We made the focus on the players,” Dottie Boone said.

The couple said they helped raise funds to give gift cards to players and find host homes where they could stay for free during the season. The booster club sold cracked wooden bats they received from the Washington Nationals, they said. On some Saturdays, they’d provide home- cooked meals.

His favorite memories include interacting with the players and staff to see if there was anything they needed, he said. The couple was almost like parents to the team.

“At every bus departure for an away game, I’d bring breakfast food,” Lamar Boone said. “I always enjoyed it. It was relaxing and we could talk to the players.”

Dottie Boone said she recommends fans in Fredericksburg get involved with the team.

“They’re dedicated in what they want to do,” she said. “They’re great people on the whole.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com and republished with permission. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

 

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up