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After 33 Joyless Years, Fans Counting the Days

Baseball's roots run deep in the District, dating back to 1859 when the Washington Nationals became a chartered organization, said Fred Cereci, a Virginia lawyer and co-author of "Baseball and Washington, D.C."

The Washington Senators, whose first season was in 1901, won their only World Series in 1924, prompting an invitation to the White House from President Calvin Coolidge, one of a litany of presidents who showed up on Opening Day to throw out the first ball.

Isaiah Faulk, 13, left, laughs with other area school baseball players at the announcement of a team for Washington. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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For years, the team played at Griffith Stadium, where Howard University Hospital now stands, a place where a racially segregated city often came together.

"It was one of the few places in the city that was a melting pot," Cereci said. "You'd see politicians from Capitol Hill, but also people from up and down Florida Avenue. It was a hub of activity."

The Senators moved to Minnesota in 1960, leaving a wound that soon healed when an expansion team arrived in the District in 1961. But that team's departure in 1971 provoked no shortage of anger. The Senators' last home game had to be abruptly halted in the ninth inning when fans poured out of the stands and ripped up the field. "

"It was devastating to the city," Cereci said. "You'd see teams in lesser cities of importance. We are in the capital city in the United States of America, and we don't have baseball?"

Frazier O'Leary, 59, who grew up driving from Norfolk with his family to see Senators games, is the baseball coach at Cardozo Senior High School. He said the absence of a major league team has added to his sense that "living in D.C., you're a second-class citizen."

In his experience, he said, the lack of a team has made it difficult to get students interested. As of now, the baseball diamond at Banneker Recreation Center on Georgia Avenue NW is the only public, regulation-size field in the District, according to the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.

"The kids here don't play baseball anymore -- there are no role models," he said. "Now there will be baseball players that the kids can see, there will be clinics, there will be a lot of money thrown in and it will filter down to the kids."

In the surrounding suburban counties, civic leaders and fans expressed a range of emotions over the announcement -- everything from excitement over the prospect of rooting for a new team to concern about traveling to games in Southeast, a section of the city that has a reputation for crime.

Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) said the redevelopment of the area could force low-income residents to relocate to Prince George's County. "What impact will that have on us as the poor sections of Southeast are pushed across the border?" he asked. "How do we deal with that?"

Williams said the city would do everything to ensure that people who live near the proposed stadium site can remain in the neighborhood.

At the Vienna Inn in Northern Virginia, fans among the lunch crowd said they were willing to give the team a honeymoon period of a year or two to become a top contender before they started complaining.

"I hope we get a good owner," said Martin Holmes, 48, of Chantilly, a senior systems engineer. "The first year, fans will go to the games because it is new. After that, it depends on the product they put out on the field. "

But winning and losing was far from the focus of the announcement ceremony at the City Museum. It was simply getting the team.

Luis Cardona of the District hadn't planned on attending, but his 6-year-old son changed his mind. "He said something to me that was really interesting," said Cardona, a coach with D.C. Dynasty Baseball, a youth league. "He says: 'Daddy, you know what? This is going to be history for me.' "

After the ceremony, many in the crowd milled about, talking about the future. Someone started singing a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," and soon enough everyone joined in.

Staff writers Michele Clock, Susan DeFord, Timothy Dwyer, Hamil R. Harris, Darragh Johnson and Monte Reel contributed to this report.

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