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Identifying With Each Other

Nationals, Area Fans Are in a Getting-to-Know-You Stage

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page D01

VIERA, Fla. -- Earlier this month, Zach Day dined at Clyde's, a Georgetown restaurant, with his wife, Megan. For a while, Day waited for Chad Cordero, his buddy and teammate on the Montre . . . wait, no. On the Washington Nationals. By the time Cordero arrived several hours late -- a connecting flight from Chicago had been canceled -- the Days had finished dinner, but met Cordero to grab a bite elsewhere.

At no point during their night out and about in Washington did anyone stop Day, a mop-headed right-hander, and say, "Hey, you going to make the rotation this year?" At no point was Cordero approached, asked for his autograph, and wished good luck on his first full season as a major league closer.

It may take some time, but fans of the Washington Nationals will eventually learn the faces that go with the names, including closer Chad Cordero and relief pitcher Luis Ayala. (Gary Bogdon For The Washington Post)

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"We're going to have to give people a reason to know us," Day said.

The Nationals' pitchers and catchers -- Day and Cordero among them -- report to spring training here today, the first official gathering of major league players preparing to represent Washington in 34 years, the beginning of a season fraught with story lines.

But because there has been no more obscure major league team over the past three years than the Expos, the members of the Nationals -- most of whom are merely the Expos, relocated -- could blend into their Washington environs as easily as dime-a-dozen lobbyists or lawyers. That's not all bad, considering the team went 67-95 and was the second-worst team in the National League in 2004. But these guys are big leaguers. They're ready to have people respond accordingly.

"We're ready for people to cheer for us," Day said. "We're ready for people to know who we are."

How spring training progresses will go a long way toward determining how well Washington baseball fans -- another group that's not exactly well-defined -- will know their team by the time the season opens on April 4 at Philadelphia. Headed into the first few workouts -- pitchers and catchers hit the field Thursday, with position players due Sunday -- only four players are both healthy and established enough that they will almost certainly enter and exit the spring with job security: catcher Brian Schneider, third baseman Vinny Castilla, shortstop Cristian Guzman and right fielder Jose Guillen.

Of those four, only Schneider was with the club last season. Castilla, who led the National League with 131 RBI last year, was signed to a two-year, $6.2 million contract in November as a free agent from Colorado. That same day, General Manager Jim Bowden signed Guzman, whose slick fielding was one of the mainstays of the Minnesota Twins' run to three straight division championships, to a four-year, $16.8 million contract. Later that week, Bowden traded a pair of prospects -- outfielder Juan Rivera and shortstop Maicer Izturis -- for Guillen, who drove in 104 runs in 2004 for Anaheim.

But even the really new guys -- in a very real sense, they're all new for Washington baseball fans -- come with question marks.

Castilla, 37, will always be hounded by the disparity in his numbers at the Rockies' home park, Coors Field, and away from home. Last year, for instance, he hit .321 and slugged .575 in Denver. Those numbers dropped to .218 and .493 on the road.

Guzman, 26, has gold glove potential. But for a player projected to hit near the top of the order, the Nationals would like him to reach base more often. In six major league seasons, only once has his on-base percentage been higher than .311.

"He's going to slash at the plate," said Ron Gardenhire, his former manager in Minnesota. "He's going to go out and make some plays, and you're going to go, 'Wow, how'd he do that?' That's what Guzzy does on a day-to-day basis. . . . Does he look ugly sometimes? Who doesn't, in this game? But when you start talking about writing a name down in your lineup, I didn't have to worry about shortstop. I wrote down 'Cristian Guzman.' "

Guillen, 28, is coming off his best offensive season. But he realizes that, at least for the time being, he will be dogged by his personal behavior, most notably an on-field outburst that carried into the locker room last September. That got him suspended for the pennant race and the playoffs, and led him to enroll in anger management courses this offseason.

"This is a fresh start for me," Guillen said. "It happened. . . . I'm a hard-working man. I just want to play every day."

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