Beer and behavioral economics at Nats Park

When an exhibition game at Nationals Park this spring revealed that beer prices there this season would hit $16, the sports commentariat went entirely and understandably crazy. Sixteen bucks?! That’s absurd.

Nats Park beerOr as a Yahoo Sports headline put it, “The Nationals’ new beer prices could pay for Bryce Harper’s contract themselves.”

But Mark Townsend’s post and others also noted that these higher prices were for 25-ounce servings. Paying either $15 or $16 for the equivalent of two quality beers doesn’t seem so bad.

And with the price of a pint at Nats Park having escalated from $10.50 or $10.75 to $12–the less-obvious land grab in this year’s changes to ballpark eating and drinking–spending $15 or $16 for a 24-ounce pour or a 25-ounce can becomes the only defensible option if you don’t want to feel quite so abused by your transaction.

Also less obvious: After you’ve had one of these economy-sized servings, buying another seems much less defensible than getting a second round might have appeared last year. Even with the Nats’ angst-inducing performance this summer, do you really want to down the equivalent of two-thirds of a six-pack at a game? The marginal utility just isn’t the same, not if you want to pay attention to the proceedings on the field.

And that’s how the Nats have gotten me to spend and drink less at the yard this year–not simply by charging more, but by exceeding the 25- to 50-cent annual price increase they’d conditioned me to expect, then giving me an option that only requires accepting the risk of beer getting warm in the sun.

Still free after this year’s round of ballpark price hikes: real-world lessons in behavioral economics.

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You never know what you’ll see at a baseball game, maybe even while you’re watching it

Wednesday, I saw a record-tying 20-strikeout performance at Nationals Park–and I didn’t realize history was happening until the 7th inning or so.

Nats Park scoreboard after Max Scherzer's record-tying 20th strikeout.

I know, unobservant. But in my defense, Max Scherzer’s pitching masterpiece for the Nationals didn’t register on the radar of catcher Wilson Ramos either until he saw that his teammate had put 17 Ks on the scoreboard.

Baseball is like that sometimes. You get so used to seeing a few innings’ worth of no-hit pitching getting broken up that you don’t pick up on an actual no-hitter happening until you’ve spent two innings waiting in line at the Shake Shack.

Yes, I’ve been that out-of-it too. As Jordan Zimmermann mowed down the Marlins in 2014’s last regular-season game, I kept thinking that the game was going by really fast while the line to get a burger was not. In my defense, that was not as stupid as my originally booking my flight home from the Online News Association’s conference to land at almost 5 p.m.; fortunately, I could remedy that mistake with a free same-24-hours flight change.

Keeping score from my seat would have been one way to avoid being oblivious about baseball history happening around me those times, but my own scorekeeping knowledge has barely advanced beyond knowing to yell “E6!” when a shortstop airmails a throw to first into the stands. And on Wednesday, I showed up late anyway.

Yet by the seventh-inning stretch that night, everybody was paying attention to every single pitch, just like we did at Nats Park two Septembers ago. Seeing the guy on the mound accomplish the near-impossible was a great feeling.

And it was something we needed after Tuesday’s gut-punch of yet another postseason elimination of the Capitals–the latest in a long series of playoff collapses for Washington teams that led embittered Post sportswriters to recast the paper’s recount of the Nats’ 2014 exit as a catch-all story of D.C. sports futility:

 

After [SPORTS VERB]ing [HIGH NUMBER] of [SPORTS STATISTICS] in the regular season, [TEAM’S TOP-PAID PLAYER] managed just [VERY LOW NUMBER] of [SAME SPORTS STATISTIC] in the playoffs.

Games like Wednesday’s help push games like Tuesday’s into the background. And if you can’t have those, at least baseball offers enough other improbable situations that you just might get to see on any given day–a hitter running out a dropped third strike, a 9-3-6 double play, a position player coming in to pitch or a pitcher pinch-hitting–to offset somewhat the staring-at-the-wall-at-4-a.m. numbness that being a baseball fan can inflict in October.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself now. Check back with me in the fall.

 

The Nats Park entrance music we need

Baseball has returned to the nation’s capital once again–a phrase Washingtonians could not say for 34 years–and with it comes a new season’s ballpark soundtrack.

Yes, trades and departures have silenced some of the Nationals’ better tunes, like Tyler Clippard’s crafty pick of the Fugees’ “Ready or Not” or the Michael Morse at-bat sing-along of A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” But as Bryce Harper’s solo shot reminded everybody during Thursday’s 6-4 loss to the Marlins, the Nats remain blessed with the finest home run celebration ever, the late, great Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose.”

Nats Park home opener 2016That song should be all the hint the Nats need about finding entrance music that both speaks to here and gets people nodding their heads or tapping their feet. Here are my nominations, none of which show up in MLB Plate Music’s quasi-authoritative list and all of which you can and should enjoy on this Spotify playlist:

“Waiting Room,” Fugazi: Anyone who doesn’t perk up on hearing the bass line that opens this D.C. punk-rock classic is welcome to root for Atlanta. Besides, this song deserves better local-sports treatment than its turn as soundtrack material for our snakebit NFL franchise.

“Run Joe,” Chuck Brown: This cover of Louis Jordan’s song would help to remedy the insufficient supply of go-go at Nats Park. And if no player picks it, the team could still play it to celebrate a successful steal.

“What Do You Want Me To Say,” The Dismemberment Plan: I am sufficiently in the tank for this band that I struggled for some time to pick a worthy at-bat song from their catalogue. This one got a nod for its propulsive start.

“Hello,” Back Yard Band: This improbably peppy cover of Adele’s ballad is not only likely to confuse visiting teams and fans, the shout-outs to D.C. neighborhoods would make it a great fit for the ballpark just across South Cap from “Southwest, Southwest…”

“Mt. Pleasant,” Tuscadero: There has to be a player for the Nats who either lives in Mount Pleasant or a few blocks away in Columbia Heights and who therefore needs to adopt this 1990s bubble-gum-punk salute to that ‘hood.

“DC or Nothing,” Wale: Some of the lyrics here would be a little edgy in a MLB context (see also Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” another tune that would be awesome as somebody’s walk-up anthem), but, man, this is a great song. Harper seems to think so too.

“House of Cards Main Title Theme,” Jeff Beal: This would have to be the exclusive property of an aging pitcher who puts batters away with deception and guile. If Drew Storen could jog to the mound with Johnny Cash’s foreboding version of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” booming across Nats Park, this can and will work too.

Our baseball team

The Washington Nationals a) exist, b) aren’t in last place in the National League East, c) have a winning record, d) lead the NL East, e) have the best record in the National League.

Each of those statements would have been exponentially more improbable at this point in 2004. By then, we’d long since gotten sick of parsing the mumblings of MLB suits about the chances of the Montreal Expos being rescued from their death spiral (no thanks to MLB’s absentee mismanagement) and transplanted to fill the baseball vacancy in the nation’s capital.

So after MLB finally acknowledged the obvious and moved the Expos here, my wife and I joined a group of friends in buying a 20-game partial season-ticket package.

In the Nats’ improbable first season in the District, we saw the team somehow dance around the flaws of a staff of aging veterans and trash-heap signings to reach the All-Star break first in the NL East, second in the NL. But then the wheels fell off the bus and the team scraped its way to an 81-81 finish.

(Barry Svrluga’s National Pastime remains the book to read about that season.)

Six straight years of losing followed, and we’ve renewed that 20-game plan for every one of them. The great thing about baseball is that even an awful team can show flashes of brilliance against a good one: I have never enjoyed watching a sports event more than when I was in the stands at a sold-out RFK on Father’s Day of 2006 to see Ryan Zimmerman beat the Yankees with a walk-off home run after Mike O’Connor and Gary Majewski had somehow limited their offense to 2 runs.

D.C. baseball has developed its traditions along the way, like Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smokes at RFK and Nats Park, the Presidents’ Race in the middle of the fourth, and having the late, great Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” ring out after a home run. And Metro is crowded with people wearing Nats caps and shirts on game days. That’s all I really wanted, after my city went 34 years without a team.

Now we’re getting something extra: a team that’s good. Really good. This is a new experience. The last time a baseball team in Washington had a winning season was 1969, when Ted Williams guided the Senators to an 86-76 record and I was -1 years old. For that matter, no major sports team in D.C. has gotten close to a championship since my Hoyas reached the Final Four in 2007.

I don’t quite know what it would be like to watch the home team playing deep into October. But I’d like to find out. Go Nats.