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Thomas Boswell

It's the Start Of a Beautiful Friendship

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page D01

The Nats begin spring training next week in Florida. I've only been waiting 34 years to write those words, full of promise and promises fulfilled.

Our brief delay will prove worthwhile. Trust me on this. Countless people in this area have no clue what's about to arrive in their life. Some will ignore the team, just as in any town. But for those who do embrace the club, or who are gradually ensnared by it unawares, an excellent experience that may last a lifetime is about to begin. Baseball, all over again.

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You don't know the Nationals now. But you will. Even Tony Kornheiser will be hooked by midseason. Just watch. Because total familiarity is the core of what it means to have a hometown baseball team, as opposed to a make-do club in another city.

As millions already understand, having your own franchise becomes an almost year-round immersion in the lives of the players, the shifting flow of their season, the endless quirks of the game and the constant capacity of the old sport to amaze us with its freshness. That is, unless you thought the Red Sox' little comeback last October was stale, archival stuff.

From the camp opener in February until October, a big league team is with you for 7 1/2 months. Baseball insinuates itself into every night of spring and summer, as well as the best days of fall. Then it returns to help us endure the end of winter as we wait for Opening Day.

Even when the game is gone, it isn't. From Thanksgiving to Groundhog Day, baseball invades the offseason with its cannon fire of free agent signings and trades. No sport depends so much on decisions made when the field is empty. The game hardly takes a breath once it gets into the corners of your daily life.

Many Washington fans think they know what having a team will be like. But most probably don't. When Edward Bennett Williams bought the Orioles long ago, he thought he knew, too, since he'd already been president of the Redskins. But he was stunned. "The game just won't let go of you," he said.

Instead of 16 NFL games a year, he found himself in Memorial Stadium night after night. When the team was on the West Coast, he didn't know which was worse, ruining his sleep patterns to watch on TV or miss the games by going to bed.

Williams had the whole world of law, politics, sports and family to choose among. But baseball's daily richness of plot, the shifts in strategy from pitch to pitch and the sport's unique openness to inspection by the savvy fan were just the proper mix to addict him. For me, Williams was the only Washingtonian since 1971 who actually had a home team, because he owned the Orioles. Psychologically, he took possession of them, or they of him, at times. Now, the seduction of EBW will tempt us all.

Ironically, baseball is also the game that makes no specific demands for our attention. It is just there if we want it or need it, like comfort food. Baseball doesn't mind if we ignore it for weeks. It will be there, faithful as a dog, when we want to pick up the stats and standings to resume the tale. It's a TV entertainment and a ballpark destination, a companion to the old and a first date to the young, a nightlight for the insomniac and, once in a lifetime perhaps, a party worthy of -- in Boston's case -- a parade for over 3 million in the rain.

It's a rare fan that can truly call a team from another town his or her own. Territoriality exists. The distinction is clear. A Washington baseball fan that follows the Orioles keeps his eye on the Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken or Miguel Tejada of the day. The hometown fan embraces the league home run champion like Roy Sievers, Harmon Killebrew or Frank Howard, but also knows the batting stance of a backup catcher like Jim French or the peculiar running gait of Ed (The Streak) Stroud.

In the last seven losing Orioles seasons, Washington's attention has wandered from Camden Yards, as it should. Who can maintain a passion for a bad team in a different city? But a lousy hometown team is a different -- and perhaps irrational -- issue.

As Exhibit A, take our Tony K. For 20 years, he has invested many times the normal sane allotment of attention (and column inches) to the woeful Wizards. A waste? No way. Les Boulez are Washington's team, like it or not. Their eternal consternation becomes part of the community, the conversation. Until one year, Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison are all-stars and we wonder if we are watching the beginning of something that is made more special by our knowledge of everything before it.

Next week, we will begin the process of getting to know the Nats -- the new ones, not the old ones on the dog-eared baseball cards. We will, no doubt, inflict nostalgia on each other about obscure Senators who retired before Brad Wilkerson or Jose Vidro were born. But once the games start, that fetish should fade and a new era can begin. It may not even be too painful on the eyes. After all, over the last dozen years, including last season, the Expos have won more often than the Redskins.

The return of the Nats will complete a circle for many of us, while starting a whole new cycle for others. The first big leaguer I ever interviewed was a Senator in their last season here in 1971. Lenny Randle was in the RFK Stadium outfield during batting practice. So I walked out to talk to him. Why not? What line drives? Isn't that where you interview 'em?

"I don't think you're supposed to be out here," said Randle, one rookie to another.

To this day, I doubt I've set foot inside the lines again. But on Tuesday in Viera, Fla., I'll be tempted. I feel a need, shared with many, for some tactile sense that the Nats are back. For months, people have asked me earnestly, "Is it really going to happen?" As if this is all an incredibly elaborate practical joke on a scale slightly smaller than faking the first man on the moon.

"I think so," I say, but don't go further.

This return of the team makes children of us all. I feel too young to know such an important thing for certain. So, just to be sure, next week I may walk to right field and touch the grass.

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