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Nationals Slide Safely Into Home

After a Short Hiatus, Team Back to Work

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page D01

In the Washington Nationals' ideal world, outfielder Terrmel Sledge and pitcher Zach Day would have been the first players to appear in the team's new home town, strutting through a downtown sports bar in red, white and blue uniforms last week. In the team's ideal world, the Nationals would have continued selling tickets and T-shirts and everything in between over the past week, building momentum for baseball's first season in the District since 1971.

Instead, the entire Nationals organization -- from baseball to business -- spent yesterday digging out from its week-long slumber, trying to readdress a slew of issues that have become more urgent since MLB essentially shut down the team's Washington operation a week ago today. MLB reopened that operation yesterday following the D.C. Council's 7-6 approval of a package that will finance the construction of a stadium -- concluding a wild week in which baseball in the District at times appeared dead.

D.C. Council members Harold Brazil, left, and Vincent Orange are all smiles after a deal passed to finance a baseball stadium along the Anacostia waterfront. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

_____O's Meet Nats_____

The Baltimore Orioles released their spring training schedule yesterday, a slate that opens March 3 and includes the team's only games against the new team down Interstate 95, the Washington Nationals.

The Orioles and Nationals -- who will not meet during the regular season -- face each other three times in spring training, first on March 5 at the Orioles' spring home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The Nationals will host a split-squad game in Viera, Fla., on March 13, and the teams will meet again in Viera on March 25.

The Orioles open their training schedule in Jupiter, Fla., against the Florida Marlins on March 3, and conclude it with games March 31 and April 1 in Oklahoma City against the St. Louis Cardinals and with a final exhibition game April 3 in Philadelphia against the Phillies. The Nationals begin their regular season in Philadelphia the following day.

Nationals officials said yesterday they are still working out final details of their spring training schedule, and it should be available soon. [Orioles' spring schedule, Page D8]

-- Barry Svrluga

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"Is having an off week ideal? No," Nationals President Tony Tavares said. "But it's better than the alternative."

The alternative was MLB abandoning its plan to move the Montreal Expos to Washington. But within hours of yesterday's council vote, team officials were preparing to reopen shop. Orders for season tickets will again be taken today. The team's merchandise store, a heated trailer in a parking lot at RFK Stadium, will open its doors at 8 a.m. Among the items that will be available will be the new jerseys, which Sledge and Day were supposed to model last Wednesday, an event that was canceled.

But because of the vote, the team will try to make up for lost ground with a flurry of activity in the three days remaining before Christmas.

"We'll be up and running," Tavares said. "Everything will be open. Tickets. The store. We'll just catch back up."

Prior to the shutdown, the Nationals had taken deposits for more than 16,000 season tickets, and had hoped to get invoices to those fans prior to the holidays, showing exactly where their seats are located. That process has been delayed until January, according to Kevin Uhlich, a special assistant to Tavares. Uhlich and Tavares said the team would begin contacting the people who cancelled 563 of those orders today to ask whether they're still interested in season tickets. Tavares said a "full sales push" on season tickets will begin shortly as well.

"It's slowed the process for the last week or so," Uhlich said. "I think we'll be able to pick it back up again. You hate to go backwards. You always want to go forward. We'll offer those people their place back, and we'll see if any of them have a change of heart."

The other major negotiation that needs to be addressed immediately is the team's pursuit of a radio deal. Tavares said he made phone calls as early as yesterday morning to open talks up again. "This cost us some time," Tavares said.

A club source said the team is deciding between two conglomerates -- Clear Channel Communications and Infinity Broadcasting Corp. Infinity would put the team's games on WJFK-FM, which is home to the Washington Redskins, and Infinity would put them on WTEM-AM, a sports-talk station. Because both companies own several stations in the market, the team would be able to promote the broadcasts to a variety of listeners. A deal could be reached as early as Dec. 31, but will almost certainly be in place by Jan. 7, the source said.

There were baseball considerations to address as well. Interim general manager Jim Bowden, who has been working out of the team's spring training headquarters in Viera, Fla., said he was "extremely pleased" with the vote, and hoped that the stability would help him in his pursuit of players.

"We've had some free agents that have signed here who signed the contracts because they wanted to play in Washington," Bowden said. "We've traded for players that are excited to play in Washington. And we're working on acquiring other players who want to play in Washington. This can only help."

Bowden's primary target, left-hander Odalis Perez, remained unsigned yesterday, but could be off the market by the end of the week. Bowden declined to comment on negotiations. Tavares said he didn't know if the club could increase its current offer to Perez, believed to be for three years and $18 million. The Seattle Mariners are also making a push for Perez, and are prepared to pay more than the Nationals have offered.

"What we have to decide is can we afford to buy a pitcher in this market?" Tavares said.

The players, with or without a new pitcher, will report to spring training in less than two months. Some had endured three seasons of uncertainty in Montreal and had grown excited about playing in Washington, then spent the last week wondering what could happen next.

"This is just another thing not only me, but our team, has experienced before, where it's out of our hands and there are other people making the decisions," catcher Brian Schneider said. "So we had to sit back and wait and let other people take care of business. There was nothing we could have done but sit back and wait and see how it played out."

Said outfielder Ryan Church: "It's just a relief to know we'll be going somewhere where people want to watch us play."

Now, with the week's shutdown over, the team will begin to court such players again.

"I'm never one to look at stuff like this as a lost opportunity," Tavares said. "If you dwell on it, and let it bother you, you drive yourself nuts. You're much better off saying it is what it is -- a delay -- and getting on with it."

Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company