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Baseball's Return Creates Buzz In D.C.

By Lacy Lusk
March 11, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C.--For District of Columbia baseball fans new and old, the first week of March was as exhilarating as one week in December had been deflating. The Washington Nationals, all the evidence suggests, have become a real team.

After more than 33 years of playing the part of Charlie Brown trying to kick a ball out of Lucy’s hold, the nation’s capital has its own major league franchise again. Granted, the team is still owned by Major League Baseball and the roster lacks star power. But Washington fans can worry about those problems later.

The Nationals won their spring-training opener, 5-3 over the Mets in an ESPN-televised game. Three days later, they beat their ready-made rival, the Orioles, 9-6, in the first of their three spring training matchups. The games won’t count until the Nationals visit Citizens Bank Park on April 4, but it was hard to tell many fans in Washington the true meaninglessness of spring training.

For a city that has been starved for baseball for 33 years, a win over the Orioles is already a sign that baseball is back.

“I don’t think the team quite understands what these games with the Orioles mean to Washington,” said 24-year-old John White of Greenbelt, Md., as he and the rest of the Nats Fan Club met at an Irish pub to watch the first game between these Nationals and Peter Angelos’ Orioles.

White, who occasionally went to Camden Yards to watch one of his favorite players, Frank Thomas, says he finally has a hometown team. At an offseason autograph session, White told Nationals catcher Brian Schneider that he wanted to see the team beat the Orioles this spring because the teams won’t meet in interleague play until next season.

“It’s just spring training,” Schneider told White.

Remembering the exchange, White, in all seriousness, says, “They’ll get it when they get up here.”

When the Nationals arrive in Washington for an April 3 exhibition game against the Mets at RFK Stadium, they’ll find a fan base that already includes more than 20,000 season-ticket holders. After a drawn-out departure from Montreal, the players welcome stability, a real home and major league crowds--a far cry from the 10,000 or fewer who often showed up at Expos games.

“I think the Nationals are real good. We can do something,” shortstop Cristian Guzman said at a February press conference where he and three other players modeled the Nationals’ new uniforms. “We can go to the playoffs and the World Series. The kind of year I want is to put us in the playoffs.”

As Guzman was talking to media members, more than 100 fans waited in line outside Washington’s ESPN Zone to get autographs and meet him, outfielder Jose Guillen and righthanders Chad Cordero and Zach Day. The event was originally scheduled for December but had to be postponed. Washington had been without baseball for more than three decades, for a variety of reasons, but it almost ended up with the cruelest near-miss of all.

In December, Major League Baseball shut down all off-field operations for the Expos-turned-Nationals after the D.C. city council tried to change the terms of the agreement to bring the team to the city. D.C. city council chairwoman Linda Cropp and mayor Anthony Williams sparred for weeks, but eventually Cropp gained minor concessions and Williams was able to carry the deal through.

When MLB signed off on the slightly altered deal with Washington--for instance, the city will pay less penalty than originally planned if the new stadium is not ready for 2008--baseball fans in the district and surrounding suburbs breathed a sigh of relief. Where the Nationals fit into the Washington sports landscape remains to be seen.

For at least three seasons, the team will play in RFK Stadium, the original cookie-cutter ballpark built in the 1960s. A new, $440 million stadium will not open before 2008, so in the meantime the Nationals are sharing RFK with D.C. United, the reigning champions of Major League Soccer.

Although United annually leads MLS in attendance, Washington is firmly a Redskins town. The area’s NFL team has a waiting list longer than a rush-hour backup on a rainy Friday on the Capital Beltway. The Redskins play in suburban Landover, Md., while the NBA’s Wizards and NHL’s Capitals call Northwest D.C.’s MCI Center home.

A little more than seven years after the MCI Center opened, the area around it has taken off. The Nationals fan club was meeting across the street from the arena, in a neighborhood that now has theaters, restaurants and museums. MLB and the city are hoping a similar cycle will take hold in Southeast D.C. when the Anacostia ballpark and an ambitious development plan arrive.

“Baseball is a powerful economic engine,” Williams said. "It will bring in about $450 million in resources for city health clinics, recreation centers and police cars--that's money we don't have now and money we wouldn't have without baseball."

In the early going, the Nationals qualify as a hit. The biggest problem so far has been finding as many good seats as interested customers. When the club announced seat locations to its season-ticket purchasers, many were unhappy because their tickets were farther down the foul lines--though less expensive--than they had requested.

That's a far cry from the last two Senators' teams, which both left for more promising locales after struggling near the basement of the American League in attendance.

Losing in front of sparse crowds was the constant for the Senators. The team finished in the second division in every year from 1946-60, when the city lost the Senators to Minnesota. When an expansion team filled the void in 1961, the fans in D.C. greeted the new expansion Senators with a yawn, finishing ninth in the 10-team American League in attendance in the team's inaugural season. The losing remained as well, as the new Senators had one winning record in 11 seasons before moving to Texas.

On the Nationals’ official Website under the link for “History,” fans can learn all about the Expos. Catcher Gary Carter made the Hall of Fame, the Dodgers’ Rick Monday ended the team’s hopes of making the 1981 World Series and the franchise was born in 1969.

The diehards in Washington, however, know an entirely different history. Walter Johnson won 417 games as a Senator, and Ted Williams served a stint as manager.

Last year, with rumors buzzing about the Expos’ possible move to Washington, Bender took a road trip to Minnesota. “I went up there and still called that team the Senators, and I’ll call these guys the Senators until an owner comes in and gives them a full-time name,” he said.

After the Senators played their final game on Sept. 30, 1971--a forfeit to the Yankees because fans stormed the field before Washington could get the last three outs--several teams considered moving to Washington, and commissioner and Washingtonian Bowie Kuhn hoped to bring a team to the city.

At the time, there were thoughts that baseball would return before too long. It wound up taking nearly 33 years to the day, as Williams (along with Cropp and other local politicians) celebrated together last Sept. 29 when the deal was announced.

The fan club was born as a half-dozen loyalists, including 26-year-old Colin Mills. The 26-year-old Mills, who lives in Reston, Va., and grew up a Brewers fan, is now the club’s president.

“The best part of having a team is D.C. is being able to have scenes like we had (for the Nationals-Orioles game) . . . a group of fans in a local bar rooting for the home team together,” Mills said. “One of baseball’s great charms for me has always been the way it brings people together. There’s nothing better in my mind than sharing the excitement of a great game with your fellow fans and friends.”

For at least a little while, Nationals fans are excited enough by baseball's returns to overlook sloppy play.

On the same day when the Nats fan club was holding its meeting before the locally televised game against the Orioles (with Orioles announcers because MLB and Angelos still have not worked out the terms of a deal with Angelos to compensate him for allowing a new team in his backyard), 32-year-old Jared Peterson of Northwest D.C. was in the RFK parking lot to pick up a few souvenirs. The team store is in one of five trailers between gates E and F outside RFK.

The sounds of jackhammers and bulldozers blared through the blustery morning, as a $16 million construction project took place to make the stadium fit for baseball's return.

For fans such as White and Peterson, this is their first chance to root for a home team in Washington.

“I was excited when I found out we were getting the team, but also scared there for a few days where it looked like we were going to shoot ourselves in the foot,” Peterson said.

To the fans, the feeling that the Nationals are real will come at different times. For Peterson, it occurred when he got home from his teaching job at Thomas Edison High in Fairfax County, Va., to watch the spring-training opener he had recorded on Tivo during the day.

“I nearly cried when I saw the ESPN logo, the Mets logo and a Nationals logo on the screen at the same time,” Peterson said.

That first Nationals’ win over the Orioles, albeit in the Grapefruit League and thanks to a three-run, ninth-inning triple by 19-year old Ian Desmond (a prospect far more likely to play for the Savannah Sand Gnats than the Nationals this season), was an “experience, even though it was just for a spring-training game, that was one for the ages,” Mills said.

There will be several such moments this season, for a city that has finally had its dreams answered.

“Three of four years ago, when they first started talking about moving the Expos here, I tried not to get my hopes up,” Peterson said. “But this is really something special.”

Now, win or lose, Washington has its team back, and it hopes that it won't ever lose it again.

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