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At Nationals Park, the future overshadows the present

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The Nationals are a franchise caught between its present and its future. That scene was on perfect display on Wednesday at a chilly, drizzling NatsFest day when a few thousand fans, who can truly be anointed “hard core,” showed up at Nationals Park to chat or take photos with their team.

Normally, this would be the day you might want to ask Michael Morse if he thinks he’ll hit 30 homers now that, at 29, he’ll finally get a chance to bat 500 times in a season.

“If I stay healthy, the sky is the limit for what I can do this year,” said the 6-foot-5, 237-pound slugger after hitting nine spring training homers to win the left field job on top of his 15 homers in part-time play last year. “If you feel confident in your abilities, what can stop you? I know what I’m capable of now at this point in my career. Why should I be worried or scared? It’s better to bloom sometime than never to bloom at all.”

Or you could size up Danny Espinosa and wonder if he’s a possible rookie of the year candidate at second base. Or you could shake Wilson Ramos’s enormous hand and think, “Now I understand why he’s the catcher of the future.” On a normal team, you’d listen attentively to Manager Jim Riggleman, who’s seldom effusive, when he mentions the pair of them.

“With his arm and range and hands, Espinosa’s defense will probably keep him in the major leagues even if he struggles with the bat at first,” Riggleman said of the rookie second baseman who had 28 homers and 25 steals between the minor leagues and Washington last year. “But if he doesn’t struggle,” said Riggleman, “well, he’s going to be an all-star.

“But Ramos, he could really be special” added Riggleman, a former catcher himself. What, didn’t you just say Espinosa might develop into an all-star someday? Now it’s Ramos who’s found your skate key?

“He’s got power, soft hands, good arm,” said Riggleman.

“Cannon arm,” said seven-time Gold Glove catcher Bob Boone.

“There’s a quality about him — he is one irritated guy when we give up runs,” says Riggleman. “Madder than a hornet. You want that in a catcher.”

But the current Nationals are not quite a normal team. So you’re almost not permitted to look at the obviously important issue surrounding the ’11 team, like the possibility that Morse, Espinosa or Ramos could become good or even very good players. You can’t escape from the pair — Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper — that has done very little or nothing so far, but might be great someday. Or not.

It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just the way it is. But their presence tends to dilute the present just a bit, while giving the future a glow of expectation that may be hard to justify. The Nats, you see, didn’t just introduce their current team to the fans on Wednesday. They also brought along four players who are not with the Nats now but who seem like near-certain parts of their future — reliever Cole Kimball (“he might be up by Memorial Day” said principal owner Mark Lerner), catcher Derek Norris and, of course The Two of ’Em.

Strasburg stood in the right field corner on Wednesday afternoon, playing long toss, throwing the ball on a comfortable 120-foot line, as a couple of hundred fans watched him from the box seats and above the bullpen. They leaned over railings to see him, just as they did nine months ago and as they hope they will again six months from now.

“It’s a great time for our fans to see that Stephen is alive and well,” said Lerner, standing in the dugout, looking through a chilly drizzle at the scene. “We know how well he’s coming along. But it’s probably reassuring for them to see him actually throwing a baseball.”

Later, on the lower-deck concourse, 18-year-old Harper, who is off his sprained ankle crutches now and headed for A ball in Hagerstown, did a meet-and-greet for fans as they walked down a long line of Nats players, asking questions, taking photos, but not getting autographs.

First in that line was Harper. Couldn’t get enough of it. “Hey, glad to meet you.” At the other end, between $126 million free agent Jayson Werth and Riggleman, stood Strasburg, gracious but a bit protected on either side.

Ryan Zimmerman, who’s almost certainly the best all-around player on the team and, if you want to make odds, the Nat who probably has the best chance to be on the Hall of Fame ballot someday, took his casual wry observant place in the middle, glad to let others get some of that Face of the Franchise attention he had to carry ever since he was a 22-year-old rookie.

The Nationals are still a last-place team, but a rare, tantalizing variety — one with the vague outline of a much different future in front of them.

“It’s been a long trip for baseball fans in this area. I grew up on the Senators and waited the 33 years between teams,” said 62-year-old Stan Sidman, touring the park with his wife Jeanene. “Then we finally get a team back in ’05 and it’s a great team. Fun. But the new owners and Jim Bowden, don’t get me going, decimate it. These guys don’t know what they’re doing.

“But, now that [Mike] Rizzo’s in charge, things seem to be getting better.”

“We live in Ellicott City. The year the team came back, you could barely pick up the radio signal. The second year, you could only get the games on TV in black and white. And we have to listen to the Oriole fans all the time,” said Jeanene, who has no plans to get rid of the Nyjer Morgan bobblehead doll she finally scored on eBay.

“It’s upsetting, but we still fly the [Nationals] flag.”

They say that Cubs fans and Indians fans and Red Sox fans — and all the other chest-beaters — suffered for their baseball. Yeah, tell it to the Sidmans.

This was the day for those, and you might have been able to fit them all in the outfield bleachers, who fly the Washington baseball flag — even when it feels like winter and the rain is falling on them.

They deserve the future. And it might be quite something in a couple of years. But they also get a present — which begins Thursday — that has far more promise than any Nationals team before it.

“At last, you can visualize players at so many spots who have the ability to be really good players. Which ones will actually do it? We’ll find out. But we’re being forced to send big league quality players to the minors or trade them before opening day,” said Boone, citing pitchers Ross Detwiler, Collin Balester and Kimball, as well as Morgan and Alberto Gonzalez, who were both traded for prospects.

“Six years ago, that didn’t exist.”

Can we please just get started? Because something is happening here. Maybe it’s the end of the past. Or the beginning of the future. Either will do.

© The Washington Post Company