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Some Holes in Fan Lineup on Opening Day

Nationals Boosters Out, if Not in Force, To Watch 1st Game

By Paul Schwartzman and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page B08

The breathless announcement promised "great" photo-ops -- "die-hard" members of the Washington Nationals fan club "decked out" in team gear and eating popcorn while they watched the season opener against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Only one problem: No one from the club showed up for the prearranged gathering at ESPN Zone downtown yesterday, at least not by the end of the seventh inning, leaving bins of uneaten hot dogs and chicken wings -- and restaurant managers struggling to explain where everyone was.

John White of Prince George's County has his pick of seats for watching the Nationals game at ESPN Zone in the District. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

"Maybe they all went to Philadelphia," offered Bonnie Downing, ESPN Zone's regional marketing manager -- and, sure enough, a bunch had trekked to Pennsylvania.

After 34 years without a baseball team to support, the Washington region stirred with ripples of newfound loyalty for the Nationals. It wasn't the kind of passion found in New York for the Yankees and Mets or in Chicago for the White Sox and Cubs -- allegiances built over generations and fortified by euphoric victories and epic disappointments.

For many Nationals fans, yesterday was the start of something new -- or the continuation of something rudely interrupted when the Senators left for Texas all those years ago.

A few yards from the room that the ESPN Zone had set aside for the fan club event, a smattering of Nationals fans unaffiliated with the booster club settled into booths and plush leather chairs to watch the first pitch on a wall-sized television screen.

Ed Cunningham, 37, of Silver Spring took the day off from his job as a Pepco meter reader to acclimate himself to life as a Nationals fan after years of following the Baltimore Orioles. "Hopefully, it will be a love affair," he said, wearing a Nationals cap and T-shirt. "Right now, it's like a first date."

A few blocks away, at New York Avenue and 14th Street NW, Charles Minkowitz, a labeling specialist for the U.S. Treasury Department, sipped chicken noodle soup. He wore a new Nationals cap, the bill bearing signatures he said he got from players at Sunday's exhibition game. If only he could recognize their names.

"I'm still learning the players," he said, squinting at the signatures of the team's catcher, Brian Schneider, and left fielder Brad Wilkinson.

Minkowitz, 54, lived on Long Island before moving to Washington in 1987. His teams were in New York. Now, he has adopted the Nationals, although his affection is not without conditions. "If they don't do well, I'll go with the Yankees -- hate to say it," he said.

There was less interest at Kirkpatrick's Irish Pub in Ashburn, near the site where a group of prospective owners had once hoped to put a team. The few patrons did not seem to notice when the bartender switched on the Nationals game.

John Duran, 25, a systems engineer who lives in Leesburg, watched the Mets play Cincinnati on another television. He said he was pleased about the arrival of the Nationals, but mostly because it means that such teams as the Atlanta Braves and the Phillies will be in town. "We can see teams we like," he said.

But Monty Kolste, a retired urban planner who hoped to catch the Nationals' opener at Champps, was frustrated for a time at the tavern in Columbia. The 23 TV screens were tuned to the game between the Orioles and the Oakland A's.

Rocky Brown, Champps' manager, found the Nationals-Phillies game by dialing up a satellite. By the seventh inning, the game was on three of the screens. "That's why they pay me the big bucks," Brown said.

In some quarters, the boosterism for the Nationals started early, a sendoff for those headed to the game.

Outside the Hawk & Dove bar on Capitol Hill, a dozen or so patrons convened midmorning to take a bus to Philadelphia. Before they left, they watched one of their regulars, "Baseball Bill" Holdforth, a former Senators fan of wide repute, throw out a "ceremonial" first pitch on the grassy median dividing Pennsylvania Avenue.

Gripping the ball, Holdforth, 53, joked that he was unsure of his prowess because he no longer takes steroids. His first pitch bounced three times before it made to the catcher, who was standing maybe 20 feet away.

His second pitch made it on a wobbly fly.

Martin F. Fahey, who was making the trip to Philadelphia, took the day off from his job as superintendent at the Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery. The region's baseball fans, he said, would no longer have to look elsewhere for a team.

"We're not orphans anymore."

Staff writer Lila de Tantillo contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company