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Thomas Boswell

The Anticipation of a First Date

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page D01

Baseball's most jilted town and its most spurned franchise can now embrace each other at last.

Washington, twice divorced by heartless Senators, then left at every altar for decades, and the new Nationals, nee Expos, seduced and abandoned by Montreal long ago, finally have their long-awaited fresh start.

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Their romance, if that's what it is to be, starts today. The locale is inauspicious, a spring training assignation in Viera, Fla. But all love stories, even odd ones, must start somewhere. Whether this brokered marriage between Washington and its new Nationals will be star-crossed or requited, worth the 34-year wait or the longest practical joke in baseball history, won't be known any time soon. But the day after Valentine's Day seems appropriate for this first date; for both, it's better late than never.

No one knows yet whether the return of baseball to Washington will be played out as cruel farce or inspiring drama. However, we do know that the first season will probably be charming light comedy, a kind of baseball equivalent of summer stock: "How To Run A Major League Team Without An Owner And Your Sales Force In A Trailer In The Parking Lot."

Starting now, this should be the year when nobody with a sense of proportion complains about anything regarding the Nats.

If any Nat thinks of grumbling about the stark "clubhouse," ask him how he'd like to go back to splitting home games between Canada and Puerto Rico instead? Would he prefer to play before 30,000 fans or a few sleeping Canadian ushers?

If any fan mumbles about long waits to sign up for partial season tickets, ask him, "What do you expect?" The D.C. Council didn't okay the team until Christmas. The whole Nats front office has fewer people than George Steinbrenner has six-figure coffee fetchers. The Joint Chiefs of Staff would be stumped wearing all the hats that President Tony Tavares has on his head.

Nats outfielder-first baseman Brad Wilkerson had the right idea several weeks ago when he said: "There are no more excuses about the off-field stuff. We are just going to go out there and play baseball and get the job done or not."

For once, "or not" may have to be an acceptable option. Not preferable, to be sure. But this is a unique year. Let's set the ground rules for expectations this season: Just be glad if the stadium lights work, okay?

Compared to these Nats, the working conditions for the '62 Mets were a lawn party in the Hamptons. There's never been a team without an owner. Or a club that had to call Bud Selig before it could write a sizeable check. Most stunning, there's never been a team that is run entirely who people who may be told by the eventual Nationals owners, "Thanks for a great job. But we have our own people in mind to replace you."

What's surprising is that the Nats are attracting talent while in flux. Classy, brainy Barry Larkin just agreed to join the front office. That's a steal. Why? Larkin wanted to work with GM Jim Bowden, as well as Bob Boone and Jose Rijo.

When the Nats choose a mascot, his name, at least for this season, should be "Patience." Remember, before you boo Frank Robinson for pulling a pitcher, he'll be 70 in August. He's in the Hall of Fame and has been manager of the year. He's doing this because baseball begged him to help the game when the Expos were in danger of becoming a joke in Montreal. Get it straight. Frank doesn't need the gig. He had cancer a few years back. He's doing everybody a favor. The team likes him. The team plays for him. Don't annoy him. He might decide to take a powder. Then who manages 'em? You?

This isn't the year for demands but for regaining our taste for the game. The process of getting reacquainted may be slower than some expect. After all, the last time a Nats game was played at RFK, Cal Ripken was in fifth grade. In two more years, he will have been retired long enough to be eligible for the Hall of Fame.

So, it's been awhile. Take a chill pill. It's going to require years to rebuild an entire minor league organization that has been gutted, construct a $500 million ballpark in Anacostia and add talent through free agency over several winters. Even then, every team goes through the agonizing chemistry project of creating an interlocking team that is a true contender.

Philosophers like to say that life is a process, not a destination. That certainly defines the pleasures of baseball. If you only enjoy the years when you have a parade for the World Series winner, you're either mentally ill or a Yankees fan. Or both.

The proper preparation for the sane pace of a baseball season is the languid ritual that begins in Viera: spring training. You spend three weeks remembering how to cover first base, then play a month of games that don't count. Who needs a masseuse or meds when you have baseball? Naturally, the very first day of camp is devoted simply to pitchers and catchers "reporting."

If this were an NFL minicamp, everybody would have to memorize a midseason blitz package before they showed up. The arduous first day for the Nats will be consumed with telling offseason jokes to old buddies and avoiding the weight room.

Properly exhausted, the Nationals will then take Wednesday off. Seriously. Show up Tuesday. Practice Thursday. Maybe. There's no hurry. If you're a little stiff from making sure your nameplate is straight over your locker, then just hit the whirlpool.

In one sense, we've reached a watershed. The day the Nats report will absolutely mark the sweet moment when Washington finally has a team once more -- real players, coaches and a manager all in the same locker room starting a new season. And the itinerant ex-Expos will finally have a properly appreciative baseball home with a tradition going back to 1901.

But, despite the symbolism, don't expect Frank Robby to shoot off a cannon. His first spring training was some 50 years ago. A real baseball person "reports to camp" inwardly jubilant, but outwardly more bored than an umpire's conscience.

If luck holds, the new Washington manager, a notorious Nat nemesis, may tell a few war stories. For baseball, that would constitute hard work on drowsy reporting day. Maybe he'll recall the time he hit the only homer that went entirely out of Memorial Stadium. At least it's safe to tell that tale. Frank had the foresight not to hit that one off the Nats.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company