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The Politicians

Williams Finds His Fan Base

First Night Attendees Cheer Mayor Who Made It Possible

By Lori Montgomery and Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page A13

Little boys in baseball caps wanted his autograph. Older fans swarmed around him, shaking his hand and snapping his photo. And when Anthony A. Williams took the field for the first home game of the sport he had fought so long to bring to Washington, the sold-out crowd erupted in applause.

Williams (D) smiled his aw-shucks grin and waved his own Washington Nationals cap. So often criticized as distant and aloof, the mayor of Washington was finally feeling some love.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams acknowledges the accolades of the fans at the Washington Nationals' home opener. The mayor, who has a reputation for being aloof and out of touch, was in demand for autographs and handshakes. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

"It's a lot of love. This is great," a visibly elated Williams said after posing with yet another star-struck couple. "And it's a great outcome," he said, referring to the Nats' 5-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

In Washington, some question the political wisdom of the mayor's tortuous quest for a baseball team. But last night, Williams and other baseball boosters felt vindicated by the Nationals' electrifying regular-season home debut.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission Chairman Mark H. Tuohey also were greeted with hearty applause. Meanwhile, D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who last year stalled legislation needed to seal the baseball deal, gamely waved her baseball cap against a torrent of lusty boos.

With the introductions over, the mayor walked along the first-base line to take his seat in a special box set up on the field. As he passed, fans in the front rows broke into fresh applause, section by section, cheering and tipping their hats.

"This man's a hero," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), from her seat near the mayor and council members. "Washington, D.C., deserves a lot more respect than it gets. It's a great city, and that's the feeling today. People are so proud."

Landrieu was part of an eclectic crowd of VIPs gathered for the game. At a pregame reception in a scruffy room with a view of the RFK parking lot, the mayor and council members downed hot dogs and beer with business leaders, members of Congress and old-time Washington politicos.

"Why are people here? It's history, first of all," said Jack Kemp, a former professional football player, congressman and U.S. housing secretary. "Everybody wants to be a part of this today, because people really love this city."

Charlene Drew Jarvis, a former D.C. Council member, watched the crowd from her seat. "There's great excitement here today, because baseball links old Washington to new Washington. It gives us a sense of community," she said. "The gentrifiers don't know the history of this city, and this is a way to celebrate that history."

Outside the stadium, less well-connected fans enjoyed a festival. But, this being Washington, politics also were on the agenda as well. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), shadow senator Paul Strauss (D) and WTOP political analyst Mark Plotkin handed out 4,000 T-shirts bearing the words "Taxation Without Representation" to fans who promised to wear them at the game.

Nearby, activist Debby Hanrahan protested baseball's arrival by holding a sign that said, "Millions for the stadium, peanuts for the kids." Hanrahan, who thinks the money should be used for schools, said she came to RFK because "there are too few opportunities to make our voices heard."

Baseball fans -- the vast majority of whom live in Maryland and Virginia, according to D.C. sports officials -- were not always sympathetic. Hanrahan said some shouted encouragement, but one guy gave her a Bronx cheer. "They're in a good mood. They don't want to debate politics," she said.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) and Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) were among the suburbanites who trekked to RFK. Steele played down a budding rivalry between the Nats and the Baltimore Orioles. "I'm always in a position to mend fences," he said. "I'm an O's fan and a Nationals fan."

Earlier in the day, the mayor and council members feted the team at a Washington Convention Center luncheon. Williams met one of his heroes, team manager and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, whispering to the older man, "Welcome home."

Then the mayor got to play the hero, too. As he left the vast ballroom, a beaming Robert Dorfman, 9, of Woodbridge asked the mayor to sign his baseball.

Why Williams? young Dorfman was asked.

"If it wasn't for him," the boy replied, "we wouldn't have the Nationals."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company