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Marc Fisher

D.C. Baseball's Benefactors Soak Up the Love

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page B01


The players, ice packs strapped to aching arms and backs, were in the locker room talking real estate -- the relative merits of Chevy Chase and Foggy Bottom, the commutes from Alexandria and Annapolis to RFK Stadium. The politicians -- that historic-sounding double-play combo of Orange to Evans to . . . well, to Bowtie -- were taking a well-deserved victory lap, soaking in the splendors of spring baseball in sunny Florida.

Underneath Space Coast Stadium, spring headquarters of the Washington Nationals, the vagabond team that almost didn't make it to Washington, I witnessed something perhaps never before seen among wealthy pro baseball players -- genuine expressions of gratitude to the politicians who gave them a new home. Center fielder Ryan Church nearly hugged Tony Williams; the mayor, never one for effusive displays of emotion, recoiled, but along with his horror came a kid's smile of sweet vindication.

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They did it -- Williams and D.C. Council members Jack Evans (Ward 2) and Vincent Orange (Ward 5) leading a reluctant council to stand against Chairman Linda Cropp's histrionics and approve the deal to bring the ex-Montreal Expos to Washington. But last fall's battles are ever with us. All of the top players in that drama are either mayor or considering running for the job, including Evans, Orange, Cropp and baseball opponent Adrian Fenty (Ward 4).

However the candidates will spin the baseball debate over the next year and a half in a city very much divided over development, the facts on the ground speak loudly in favor of those who gave us the Nats. In the next week or so, the city will pick an architect for the new ballpark in Southeast, the District's finance guru will provide the new cost estimate on that stadium, and he will also rank the eight proposals for private financing of the project. Things are moving -- fast.

Already, the money is starting to flow into the city. Those Nationals who haven't yet found their own housing in Washington will stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel near the 14th Street Bridge. A downtown ticket office will open soon; Nationals souvenir kiosks will appear at malls in Virginia and Maryland. (As a major cheapo, I am cut to the core to have had to shell out two and a half times face value for upper-deck seats to the first game at RFK, the exhibition against the Mets on April 3, but that's what the resale market on eBay and Craigslist is getting.) And the entire lower bowl of RFK is sold out for the season (individual game tickets go on sale Saturday), with 70 percent of the tickets so far being sold to suburbanites.

"We hemorrhage money out to the suburbs," the mayor said of the city's structural inability to tax its commuter workforce. "This is an opportunity to bring some of that money back in."

Judging by the enthusiasm here, many suburbanites are only too eager to pump their cash back into the city. Tony Morrow of Burke went out of his way to shake Williams's hand while the Nats were handily defeating the Houston Astros here Sunday. "Congratulations, mayor," Morrow said. "Thank you." Like many suburbanites who work in the city, Morrow would rather the Nationals be downtown than out near his home. "It's so good to be accessible to Metro and be right in the center."

The hottest item here, those very cool batting practice caps with the interlocking "D" and "C" logo, has long since sold out, but a box full of the hats miraculously appeared for the visiting political delegation. (Amid all this love, I must add this shot: Did the mayor, with his security detail, really have to stay at the ultra-pricey Ritz-Carlton in Orlando?) Those who prefer their souvenirs free lined up three-deep to sign up for some credit card, the lure being a gratis Nationals T-shirt.

But Alex Piquero splurged for the $80 official Nats jersey; the D.C. native beamed as he watched the mayor's entourage enter the stadium. "I'm glad the mayor stuck to his plan, especially for the kids. It makes such a difference to grow up with a team of your own." Piquero, 34, who lives in Gainesville, where he and his wife teach criminology at the University of Florida, will head back to Washington for Opening Night, whatever the cost. "For someone who grew up in D.C., this is really important."

The mayor gets that. "Four or five years from now," Williams said, "people will wonder what the argument was all about."

E-mail: marcfisher@washpost.com

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