VIERA, Fla., Feb. 15 -- There was a blue sky. There was an unfiltered sun. There were palm trees beyond the outfield wall, and quiet everywhere in the empty stadium. And there was a baseball in the air, its lazy arc ending in a leather glove that was attached to the end of a muscular arm, which belonged to a baseball player, who was wearing a gray athletic T-shirt that read: "Property of the Washington Nationals."
That bit of visual evidence, witnessed by a handful of pasty-legged recent arrivals from the north, confirmed what had long been suspected but had yet to be proven: that there are indeed players involved in this whole baseball-returns-to-Washington story.
Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson strolls from the clubhouse to the field to meet with the media.
(Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
For nearly five months, ever since Major League Baseball announced the Montreal Expos would be relocated to the District this season, the Nationals, at least as viewed locally, had been a team in concept only -- made up, as best anyone could ascertain, of a business staff, a front office staff, a couple of trailers, a logo, a roster of "players." But no faces or voices or stories to tell.
That all changed Tuesday, as the Nationals opened their first spring training camp on a glorious Florida morning. On the day pitchers and catchers reported to camp, players entered the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium with huge duffel bags slung over their shoulders (many of them emblazoned with the old Expos logo) and greeted each other with handshakes and hugs.
They pondered the new décor, fingered the new spring uniform tops hanging in their lockers -- bright red with an interlocking "DC" on the chest -- then donned workout clothes and took to the field in twos and threes to have a catch.
"You walk in here and see all that bright red," said catcher Brian Schneider, "it puts a smile on your face. You know things are for real now."
For the 29 other teams in baseball, reporting day is one of mindless formalities. All players are really required to do is show up and have their name checked off a list; often, teams are satisfied with a phone call saying, "I'm around."
But for the Nationals, reporting day carried an air of import. As of Tuesday, baseball's return to the District after a 34-year absence has a focal point, a headquarters, a collective face. The team will not work out formally until Thursday, will not play an exhibition game until March 2 and will not open their inaugural season until April 4. But no more does Washington have to worry that its dream will end tragically before any real players get on the field.
"It's like, wow, this is really going to happen," said veteran pitcher Seth Greisinger, a McLean native who now lives in Arlington and is trying to win a spot on the Nationals' roster. "Everyone up [in the D.C. area] thought [the deal] was going to break down. That's what D.C. was always known for. Everybody I know back home has already bought their tickets."
Tuesday was so laid-back, Manager Frank Robinson didn't even bother putting on his uniform, strolling through the clubhouse in street clothes. Players did nothing more strenuous than play a little catch. Later, at their lockers, they chatted with each other, opened stacks of mail, answered questions from a curious media pack that outnumbered them perhaps two to one.
"It's weird," said relief pitcher Chad Cordero. "Everything is different. The colors are different. The uniforms are different. You guys [in the media] are different. I'm sure we'll get used to it. But for now, it's just weird."
Over the next six weeks or so, as they await Opening Day, Washington baseball fans will come to know the principal cast of characters as the Nationals' story plays out under the Florida sun:
Robinson, the former Hall of Fame outfielder and now the crusty old manager who has no patience for bad questions or missed cutoff men.
"Hollywood" Jim Bowden, the boyish general manager with the back-slapping personality of a talk-show host and the reputation for outlandish trades and outlandish candor.