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Diamond in the Rough

For most cities, landing a baseball team after years of effort represents a great civic triumph, a mark of authenticity, something that identifies the community as a formidable American metropolis. Think Phoenix. Think Seattle. Think Tampa Bay. Think, for that matter, of Montreal.

But Washington is not a city that needed anyone to pat it on the head and say, "You're all grown up, now." It started to get over its inferiority complex in the 1870s, when Boss Shepherd decided that sewer lines and paving would be appropriate. Two world wars and the Depression boosted the power of the federal government, and now there's tech money in the mix, and about 6 million people when you count the suburbs. The city is overrun with politicians, diplomats, media big shots, millionaire lobbyists and various other would-be masters of the universe. It's not like the city needed a team to boost its ego.

Glory days: The Senators take on the Yankees at D.C.'s Griffith Stadium in the season opener, April 17, 1956. Will today's Washington root, root, root for the new home team? (Evan Vucci -- AP)

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"We're not like Milwaukee or Kansas City that desperately need their franchises to stamp them as big-league cities," said Hanbury.

It's something of a mystery that baseball stayed away so long. The Orioles and their dyspeptic owner, Peter Angelos, didn't help matters, nor did the fussiness of baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and the other members of the cartel known as Major League Baseball. But it's also a matter of record that when the city had a team it often didn't have many fannies in the seats.

Brotman remembers those days. The problem wasn't the fans, it was the team, he says.

"In the past, Washington has had, unfortunately, a less than terrific baseball team," he says. Things got so bad that as the 1964 season approached, Brotman suggested a slogan that would honestly and directly address the team's firm grip on last place: Off the Floor in '64. Management loved it.

In the later years of the Senators, the team would get a full house on opening day as Brotman introduced the president of the United States to throw out the first pitch. But the second day, he said, hardly anyone would show up.

But Brotman and Hanbury said yesterday that the city has changed so dramatically, demographically, that history won't repeat itself. The suburbs have boomed since the 1960s, and the Washington metropolitan area now ranks near the top of a list of the most affluent communities in America.

"We have twice the number of people in the region today as we did 30 years ago. A much more affluent constituency now. And right now, Washington, D.C., has the strongest economy in the country," Hanbury said.

The buzz is that baseball needed Washington more than Washington needed baseball. The nation's capital not only has lots of people and boodles of money, but by placing a team here, Major League Baseball can try to reclaim the lost fan base among African Americans.

"Kids in the inner city are not playing baseball right now, as a whole," said Brendan Sullivan, co-director of Head First Baseball, a company that runs baseball clinics for youngsters. "The reality is, if you go down into parts of the inner city, we'll run a clinic and ask kids, name a Baltimore Oriole, and a lot of times no one in the group can name a single one."

But that's now. Spring training is only five months away. On opening day this may not only feel like a baseball town, but feel like a great baseball town. It'll be a hot date for singles, and dads will think they're heroes for taking their kids to the ballpark. And as the game goes into the bottom of the seventh inning, everyone in the stadium will stand and lustily sing, "Take me out to the ballgame."

They actually sang it yesterday at the big announcement. Brotman led the way, belting it out with gusto, swaying on stage. But most of the people in the place didn't appear to know the words.

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