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The Strangers on the Home Team

Many Members of the Nationals Roster Are Playing in a City They've Barely Seen

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page A06

The tall, athletic, bleary-eyed men walked into the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel after 11 Saturday night, their bodies shocked by the near-freezing temperatures and the biting rain.

They had just spent more than a month at spring training in balmy Florida and had hopped an evening flight from Tampa to Dulles International Airport. Washington's new baseball team had about 10 hours before suiting up for its first game at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, an exhibition against the New York Mets.

Nationals pitcher John Patterson looks around an empty RFK Stadium. Yesterday was the first time players got an up-close look at their home. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

Several of the Washington Nationals had never stepped foot in the nation's capital before. They were about to represent a city they had yet to meet.

"It's unfortunate we can't get around the city before the first game," said outfielder Brad Wilkerson, "but that's how it is in this business."

Unlike some of his teammates, Wilkerson has visited the District before. On a recent trip, he checked out Capitol Hill, Georgetown and the stadium but saw little else. The 27-year-old bachelor said he has not yet rented a place to live.

"Everybody is looking forward to seeing it and getting accustomed to the surroundings," said Wilkerson, who was born in Kentucky, attended the University of Florida and makes Palm Beach, Fla., his offseason home. "Maybe some of the players will have homes here."

This was not how they imagined the introduction to their new home town. Most of the players went straight to their rooms after arriving at the hotel near the Tidal Basin, mumbling something about being back on the team bus at 9:30 a.m. for yesterday's noon game.

A few milled around the lobby, talking on cell phones to wives in faraway cities. About a half-dozen players went to the hotel bar, where they drank water and Bud Light and were not bothered or recognized by anyone but a lone reporter. Other than Wilkerson, they were adamant that they did not want to be interviewed. Veteran pitcher Esteban Loaiza, who has played in five other cities during a 10-year major league career, said he had a strict rule that he would not agree to an interview after 10:30 at night.

But as they kicked back and took in the lobby bar, the players spoke in Spanish and had lots of questions about Washington: The single ones asked about the "chicas" and the best salsa clubs in the city. The others had more practical questions: How long has it been raining? How far is Georgetown from the stadium? Where is Connecticut Avenue?

Some had signed six-month leases on apartments they had seen only on the Internet. Others had plans to go house hunting when their schedule allows them to come back to the area. The team begins its regular season with nine road games, starting this afternoon in Philadelphia. Opening Night at RFK is April 14.

After yesterday's game, the Nationals were bused to Union Station to board a train to Philadelphia. "How far is it from here?" asked some of the players, who in past seasons traveled by plane to play the Phillies as members of the Montreal Expos.

In their old home, the players maintained only temporary housing during the season, Wilkerson said. "It was too cold," he explained, and the team didn't have much of a fan base. He said he was encouraged by the Washington fans he saw at spring training.

Wilkerson said he has high hopes that once he settles into Washington and gets to know the city, he'll cross paths with politicians and world leaders. "I'm curious to see who we'll meet on the street. Hopefully, we'll be able to meet some world-famous people," he said. "This is the nation's capital."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company