For Capital's Baseball Fans, Time Is Set to Begin Anew
||New York Times (NY)
||Thursday, April 14, 2005
WASHINGTON, April 13 - Jerry Bush remembers the day baseball died as if it were yesterday, not 34 years ago, not a lifetime ago.
It was Sept. 30, 1971, at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the final game for the Washington Senators before their hated owner, Robert Short, moved the team to Arlington, Tex., to become the Rangers.
With two outs in the top of the ninth and the Senators ahead, hundreds of angry, frustrated, memento-hunting fans piled onto the field, raced around the bases and tore numbers off the scoreboard. Mr. Bush, a 17-year-old high school senior at the time, pulled up a chunk of emerald sod and kept it in a shoe box in his bedroom for years.
Over the next three decades, he flirted with other teams: the Orioles, the Yankees. But like a scorned lover who just can't get over it, none of them stuck in his heart. None until this year.
On Thursday, Mr. Bush will join 45,500 other fans at R.F.K. Stadium for the sold-out home opener of the newly minted Washington Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, who have brought baseball back to this baseball-starved city.
"I'm getting goose bumps when I hear the name Nats on the radio," said Mr. Bush, a middle-school technology teacher in Montgomery County, Md., who unashamedly wears his Nationals baseball cap and jersey to school some days.
In this buttoned-down city of transients, power brokers and the politically obsessed, giddy displays of nostalgia are not the norm. But baseball has a way of doing that to grown men and, occasionally, women.
"Everywhere I go, people stop me to talk baseball," said City Councilman Jack Evans. "They yell from cars. They grab me at meetings. I see people wearing the hats all over the city. At a Ward 7 event on Friday, two dozen people, mostly men 40 and over, said how proud they were to have a team back."
Never mind that few here can name more than a player or two on their new team. Never mind that the club drew just 748,550 fans in Montreal last year, when it finished last in the National League East with a 67-95 record. Never mind that the National's hat features a lone "W" above the bill, an uncomfortable reminder to some people in this overwhelmingly Democratic city of their Republican president.
A new day has dawned in a new city. The Nationals are 5-4 and tied for first in their division. The honeymoon has begun. While the common folk buy team T-shirts and hats, the rich and powerful have been buying up behind-the-dugout seats. Already, the Nationals have sold more than 22,000 season tickets, prompting confident team officials to project total attendance of 2.5 million for the year.
"The good news is we haven't had to aggressively market the team yet," said Chartese Berry, the Nationals' vice president for communications. "We were just absolutely bombarded by folks who were interested."
The home opener will have all the trappings of a Washington event. President Bush - once a part-owner of the Texas Rangers - will throw out the ceremonial first pitch, using the final ball from the final Washington Senators game, which the team forfeited to the Yankees because the fans stormed the field. There will be a flyover of military jets. And Chris Matthews plans to tape his Thursday edition of "Hardball" on MSNBC from the R.F.K. field.
This being Washington, protests are also expected. Parents who want the city to spend money on schools instead of a new baseball stadium. Advocates seeking Congressional voting rights for the city. (Washington has only a nonvoting seat in the House.) Critics of President Bush. Opponents of the war in Iraq. (The Nationals are trying to negotiate a deal to let the National Guard advertise and recruit at the stadium.)
"I think Robert Kennedy would appreciate that," Mayor Anthony Williams, whose entire public schedule on Thursday will involve baseball events, said of the protests.
The big question for marketing gurus and baseball fanatics alike is how long the love affair will last. Could one abysmal Expos-like season kill it?
It may come down to people like Jim Mauro. A Pittsburgh native who has lived in Washington for 25 years, Mr. Mauro has continued to cheer for his beloved Pirates. This year might be different.
At an Orioles game in Baltimore this month, Mr. Mauro, a lawyer, glanced up at the scoreboard and noticed that the Phillies were leading the Nationals. And he noticed something else: a pang of dismay with his new home team.
"It was an epiphany," said Mr. Mauro, 60, the president of a youth baseball league in northwest Washington. "I felt like I was becoming a Nationals fan. And I felt guilty about the Pirates."