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Thomas Boswell

Pacing Before The Blessed Event

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page D01

The joys and fears of civic childbirth will meet at RFK Stadium tonight when a regular season major league baseball game is played in this city for the first time after a 34-year gestation.

The president will throw out the first pitch, symbolic of the pomp and power of the nation's capital that the sport spurned for so long. Enormous cheers of vindication, relief and simple pleasure will fill the air after a third-of-a-century rain delay. But mixed in the tumult will be the same tremors of doubt and concern about the future that attend the arrival of every new infant.

The Washington Nationals, longed for by many in this area for several barren decades, are this city's fragile adopted child.

In a few years, the Nats may be healthy and strong, playing in a new, $580 million ballpark on the Anacostia waterfront with the U.S. Capitol framed in center field. With luck, the economic impact of the team, its fans and its park may lead to a revitalization of an entire neglected, barely utilized section of Southeast Washington. The same model has worked elsewhere. The new twist in Washington, because of its unique geography, is that millions of suburban dollars may be lured to downtown, then spent there.

This Opening Night, marking the return of baseball, may turn out to be one of the Washington area's best decisions after one of its longest fights, a victory at every level from entertainment and economics to region-wide pride and cooperation.

Unless it isn't.

That is the intense drama of the Nationals. It is a story that already goes far beyond the diamonds of baseball into the shaping of the capital city in a new century. In coming years, the Nationals will do well or ill, prosper or founder, be a boon to the town, including many who never attend a game, or else prove a drain on resources, and an embarrassment on the field.

In other words, the Nationals may become something akin to what the Red Sox are to Boston or the Giants to San Francisco. The huge outpouring of Nationals interest throughout the region in recent months, manifested in unexpectedly high ticket and merchandise sales, makes it perfectly plausible that the new team could be a huge success.

In recent weeks, as the strong pulse of baseball interest has beaten louder and louder, top baseball officials have become more concerned about the future of the Orioles than the Nationals. It's as though, after a generation of ignoring demographics, the sport has finally figured out that Washington is the definition of a "major market," while Baltimore is distinctly mid-sized.

However, while the current evidence points toward Washington being a baseball success, the proposition is still far from a certainty. No one, including commissioners, has ever been able to predict the long-term viability of new or relocated teams.

When baseball expanded in '93, snubbing Washington and choosing Miami and Denver, the consensus was that Miami would be a huge success, but picking Denver might be a mistake. Instead, the Rockies drew 4.4 million fans, still the record. After many poor seasons, Colorado still drew 615,000 more fans last year than the Marlins, who had just won the World Series. Denver loves baseball, even if it stinks. Miami couldn't care less, even if you win the pennant. If almost everyone in baseball could be utterly wrong about Denver and Miami, nobody can really be sure about Washington. Early ticket sales or not.

The hushed undercurrent of this opener is the ancient haunt that the new Nationals will simply recapitulate the sadness of two departed Senators franchises. It's an illogical fear in the country's eighth-largest market, one that now ranks No. 1 in education and disposable income. This time, however, the stakes are higher. If a third team fails, a half-billion dollar structure near South Capitol Street would symbolize the brutal dashing of many high hopes and well-intentioned motives.

At the moment, the Washington area is united in its desire that the Nationals become a hit. Why? With the exception of a few D.C. Council members who could say, "I told you so," there's nobody who benefits by a Nationals flop. Consider the Redskins. Does anybody with this area's interests at heart want them to fail financially or leave town? If so, find the scoundrel. The Redskins are part of the city's extended family of valuable and almost indispensable institutions.

Well, the Nationals are here now. They've joined our family of core institutions. Unless you think a business that attracts 2.5 million people a year to 81 events at about $30 a head, not counting many millions in ancillary spending at restaurants, hotels, clubs and retail outlets, is a peripheral part of city life.

No great city goes without a symphony, opera, art galleries, a zoo, universities, libraries, public gardens and countless other core aspects of modern urban life, ranging from the serious to the frivolous. For 34 years, Washington has had a ludicrous hole in its community fabric. Every city in the country that was comparable to Washington, and plenty that weren't, has had a big league team as well as an NFL and NBA franchise. Now, with the Nationals joining the Redskins and Wizards, Washington has simply returned to the state of affairs that should have existed long ago. There's no need to thank baseball.

This is how it's supposed to be. And this is almost certainly how it's going to be in Washington for a long time. Though it will, no doubt, take a while for many of us to digest the return of such a dependable and, often, powerful pleasure.

For example, yesterday the Nationals beat the Braves, 11-4, to win a series in Atlanta. Take that, you tomahawk choppers with your dubious nickname. The Nats are now tied for first place. (Repeat as many times as you please. Enjoy the moment.) Jose Guillen leads the majors with five home runs. There is not only a sellout Opening Night at RFK, but, amazing as it still seems, another 80 home games this season. This baseball ship has sailed. We're all on it. Nobody wins if it sinks.

But that doesn't mean we aren't worried and looking for leaks in the hull.

"Be careful what you wish for," goes the cliche. "You just might get it."

On Opening Night, countless people will get what they have hoped for so many years or even decades. With trepidation, a new era begins. Don't worry. It's as unlikely as a quadruple play that we will ever be sorry our wish was finally granted.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company