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Thomas Boswell

And They All Lived Happily Ever After

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page D09

VIERA, Fla. -- Every big league team has dreams of enjoying a honeymoon with its fans. Some teams have that period of just-married bliss when they first come into a new city. Other lucky ballclubs get this sudden era of good feeling when a new owner buys the franchise and, of course, promises to make everything, from the pitching staff to the hot dogs, the best that his money can buy. And, finally, the most massive of all baseball honeymoons accompany the building of an enormously expensive new ballpark.

No team in baseball history has ever had three honeymoon periods in a row -- one right after the other. Until now, that is.

Washington outfielder Brad Wilkerson takes early morning batting practice after he and a few other Nationals position players arrived for spring training a few days ahead of schedule. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

The Washington Nationals will have all three of these honeymoon interludes -- to capitalize upon or squander. The range of final results is staggering. Within a few years, the Nats could be one of the game's blue-ribbon major-market franchises, run by civic-minded locally based ownership and playing in a spectacular new park that revitalizes a whole area of the District.

Or, cover your eyes if you choose, the third incarnation of baseball in Washington could end up in as barren a marriage as the first two incarnations of the Senators. Right now, with Nats season ticket sales already approaching 20,000, a faster pace than almost anyone in baseball expected, that latter nightmare seems less likely. But all huge enterprises in business and sport are seized upon, or fumbled, on a scale comparable to the potential of the original opportunity. The stakes now are vast.

And those who now run the Nationals, in effect auditioning for full-time employment in the future, know it extremely well.

"Instead of three separate honeymoons, why not just have a five-year honeymoon that doesn't stop? First a new team in town [for Opening Day], then new owners later this year and finally a new stadium. Let's just make it one big celebration," said General Manager Jim Bowden as he sat in his office overlooking Space Coast Stadium. With the team's first practice a day away, the field outside his panoramic window was as empty as an unpainted canvas -- and as full of both promise and creative dread.

"Honeymoons should be great, right?" said Bob Boone, one of Bowden's key front-office aides. "When you can look forward to three of them, that should be fantastic. Reality always hits soon enough. We need to make the most of this now."

The Nats' brass knows this triple honeymoon has its pitfalls. But they're ready, they say. Well, as ready as you can be with a staff that's largely transformed from the one that ended last season when the team was the Montreal Expos. Also, team president Tony Tavares has no idea who will buy the team or what they'll be willing to spend. As for the club itself, Manager Frank Robinson saw it lose 95 games last season. Depending on the rehabilitation of several injured pitchers, the Nats could be considerably better or, gulp, distinctly worse. In baseball, what is riskier than a staff full of pitchers with fresh scars?

"I keep asking Tomo Ohka to show me his scar again [where his arm was broken by a Carlos Beltran line drive]. He doesn't like to do it," said mischievous 22-year-old closer Chad Cordero. "It's several inches long."

Robinson seems most aware of the need to galvanize the Washington fan base quickly. In recent years, he has worked on projects for the commissioner and knows how deep the sport's skepticism is toward Washington's sustained support. "I was very surprised and excited to learn that we've sold so many season tickets," Robinson said. "If we go undefeated down here in spring training, maybe we can get it up to 30,000 by Opening Day."

Nice joke. But Robinson's true feelings are, as always, more hard-edged. "I always thought Washington deserved a team," he said earlier this week. But, in private, he concedes that he doubted it would ever happen. Every day this week, he has returned to the subject of grabbing and holding those Washington fans who have an entrenched reputation (in baseball) for fickleness.

"We need to put on a good show right away," said Robinson. "After the newness wears off, what will the fan base be then? . . . People have the right to stay away. . . .

"First impressions are important. You don't want to get people turned off and then try to recapture them. So, what is a 'fast start?' If you get off well for two or three weeks, then you go backwards, is that a fast start [to the season]? Naaah. If you are playing very good baseball the first half of the season, that's a fast start."

Washington's level of success as a baseball town may, to a degree, be determined by the accumulating momentum -- or lack of it -- that develops in the next few months. The better the team, the bigger and more enthusiastic the crowds. The bigger the buzz, the more interest there'll be in the bidding contest for the franchise. Finally, the better the team, the larger the crowds and the more impressive the r�sum� of the final owners, the less resistance the new stadium project will probably face.

All that, of course, can also run in reverse. For example, please don't tell Livan Hernandez, who's pitched 488 innings with a 3.42 ERA and 17 complete games in 68 starts over the past two seasons, that he may be the key to the future of Washington baseball. With him as the poised, World Series-proven staff ace, there's probably a limit to the Nats' downside. But if this premier National League workhorse ever got hurt, there's no telling how badly it might shake the whole Nationals staff.

"We're trying to show Washington why they should be excited about our team," said Bowden, who on a shoestring budget has added two 100-RBI men, a quality young shortstop and a pitcher just one season removed from a 20-win season. But he didn't get the left-handed starter he craved. So he's still got a hold-your-breath bunch on his hands as the honeymoon starts.

Bowden sits in his office, surrounded by boards covered with the names, statistics and ages of former Expos players. Despite his 10� years as Reds general manager, he is still saturating himself in the minutiae of his new Nats.

"Lots of guys on this team are at the age -- 26 to 28 -- when excellent players 'break out.' Future Hall of Famers usually show up very young. But there's a second wave that matures a little later. Several here seem right on the verge. They remind me of our '99 Reds team that won 96 games," said Bowden. "Nobody expected it, but then players like Sean Casey emerged. Jose Guillen, Brad Wilkerson, Brian Schneider, Nick Johnson and Terrmel Sledge all fit that [career-path] profile."

Then, Bowden, Boone and pitching guru Jose Rijo turn and look at another board on the back wall, covered with draft data.

"We have the number four overall pick in the '05 draft. In all my years in Cincinnati, I never even sniffed a number four pick before," Bowden said, glad that the Nats had the sport's fourth-worst record last season. "The [small-market] teams that will pick before us may not have the money to sign the [real] number one player. But we probably will. If we get the best player in the draft and it's a starting pitcher, that may be our best acquisition this year."

Boone chuckled. "Maybe that's our honeymoon gift," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company