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.