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Nats Fans Figure Their Club Deserves Another

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page H04

Many of them don't even know who they'll be rooting for, let alone that second baseman Jose Vidro is rehabilitating a knee injury or that new shortstop Cristian Guzman needs to get on base more regularly. Yet they are here anyway, spending an unseasonably glorious afternoon inside a dark Irish pub in downtown Washington. Almost all of them have some sort of gear on, something that distinguishes them from the jersey-wearing soccer fans in the next section. A brand-new Washington Nationals hat. An old, ragged Washington Senators jacket. A "Baseball in '87" button. All of the above.

They are the members of a band of baseball brethren who have dubbed themselves, appropriately, the Nats Fan Club. A little over a week ago the group held its third official meeting. It already has bylaws. It has elected officers. It has an official Web site. Never mind that none of the club's 70 or so members has seen its team -- the Washington Nationals -- throw a single pitch. The club's unofficial theme, which hasn't yet formed into a downright motto, is easy to find.

Nationals fans Michael Bender, left, and Don Plavnick wear their allegiance while discussing Washington's new team. (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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"It's been so long," said Don Plavnick, 60, who was born in the District and lives in Arlington.

"We haven't had a team for 33 [34, actually] years," said Allen Knotts, 63, who came to the meeting from his home in Bowie.

In some ways, Washington has only a shell of a team, even now. Yes, there are players, all set to report to spring training in Florida this week. But the sale of the Nationals, who are owned by Major League Baseball, is moving along slowly, and likely won't be completed until sometime this summer. Decisions are still being made by a front-office staff, led by team president Tony Tavares, that could well be replaced by the new ownership once the team is sold.

So even as sales and marketing specialists toil away in trailers in the RFK Stadium parking lot, they have yet to roll out a promotional campaign to help generate excitement. Thus, the Nationals, at this point, are relying on the wistfulness of people who have longed for baseball's return to Washington almost since the day it departed.

No group fits that description better than the collection of folks who have joined the fan club -- people who, over a beer or four, will argue about Baltimore's role in keeping baseball away from Washington, will discuss who might make a good owner and why, will stoke whatever embers remain of Washington's hot-stove culture. And those like Plavnick, who was in the stands for the Senators' last game at Griffith Stadium in 1961, will share their memories with others who weren't alive when Washington was a baseball city.

"I've been a hard-core fan all my life," he said. "People always said that baseball couldn't work in Washington, that the population was too transient. But it's a different city. It's not the Washington of old. It's twice the size. People are putting down roots. People have more pride in the city. It's the right time, and the right mood for this city."

The Nationals have sold more than 18,000 season tickets. But for the team to take hold of the city -- beginning with a buzz around spring training, running right through the home opener at RFK Stadium on April 14 and then carrying through the summer -- it will need more people like those at Fado, the bar near the corner of 7th and H that has served as the fan club's home base. Among the more than 30 members who gathered recently, there were men, there were women. There were people in their sixties, and there was 1-year-old Camille White, whose 24-year-old father, John, masterfully kept his daughter quiet during important official club business. There are lawyers, secretaries, computer programmers, retired military members, delivery truck drivers.

They are, to this point, merely rooting for a concept: Baseball is back in Washington. But as the Guinnesses and Harps flowed down baseball-thirsty throats, the fact that this group gathers to discuss a team that hasn't yet arrived in a town that hasn't hosted a baseball team in more than 30 years seemed odd to almost no one.

"It's not surprising," Knotts said. "This is what I'd expect. Baseball is back in Washington. People want to talk about it."

Jerry Seinfeld, the comedian, famously addressed the transient nature of sports by pointing out that because players move from team to team so often now, fans are left "rooting for laundry." One player departs, someone else puts on his jersey, the fans cheer for the new guy.

This group of fans, though, pre-dates even the laundry. On Sept. 29, Major League Baseball announced that it would move the Montreal Expos to Washington. That night, giddy from the celebration, a group of devotees who had attended the official announcement searched for a place to drink. One member, Jeff Simenauer, had promised to buy the first round if -- if -- baseball ever returned. The group, full of energy, wandered into the nearest bar, Fado.

"We were just so high," said Colin Mills, a bespectacled 26-year-old administrative assistant who was elected the club's president recently. "We were looking for a place to go, to have some toasts."

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