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Thomas Boswell

Nationals, Orioles Are Getting Their Fill

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page D09

Welcome to the baseball capital of the world! Okay, one of the capitals. So far this season. Well, for two weeks, anyway. Try to kill the buzz as much as you want, but you just can't do it. This baseball-addled April has now become magnificently and deliciously silly, culminating in a giddy spring weekend for the Nationals and Orioles. Saturday and yesterday, playing simultaneously roughly 40 miles apart, the two first-place teams drew 166,887 fans to four games, an average of 41,722 per game.

In their first home series in 34 years, Washington drew 116,002 fans -- 38,667 per game -- and swept the Diamondbacks. That's 8,267 more fans per game than the sport's average last season. Suddenly, the ex-Expos have discovered the joys of switching from life support to fan support.

"I had nothing. But I battled," said Esteban Loaiza, who allowed three runs in six innings to help the Nationals complete a three-game sweep of Arizona. (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

With five straight wins, eight quality starts in the past nine games and five come-from-behind wins already this season, the Nats look suspiciously like the gritty, released-from-Expo-bondage team that Manager Frank Robinson rashly predicted they'd be back in Florida. "We'll win more than 83," he said, to almost universal snickers. Sure, it's early, very early. But hold that laughter, for the time being.

Meantime, the Orioles completed a sweep of the despised Yanks, eliciting that most luscious of all early-season confections, the bombastic, ridiculous and pointless apology from George Steinbrenner III for the disgraceful performance of his overpriced team.

"Enough is enough. I am bitterly disappointed . . . unbelievable to me . . . highest-paid team . . . such a deep funk . . . not playing like true Yankees . . . I expect Joe Torre," fumed Steinbrenner, delighting sensible folk from coast to coast.

Are we having fun yet?

After spending Thursday and Friday nights at RFK Stadium and Camden Yards, both sold out and jumping, then feeling RFK sway on its old joints again yesterday as the Nats scored six runs in the seventh to win, I may need baseball methadone.

The Nationals lead the major leagues in slugging percentage. That's not a typo. And, of course, it can't last too long. But their first-rate defense is not an April trick. Fine defense, once established, sticks all season. And the Nats have it.

Yesterday, Washington would have trailed 6-1 with average defense. Instead, four fine plays -- three of them by shortstop Cristian Guzman -- kept the deficit at 3-1. After scoring seven runs in the seventh inning on Saturday to blow open a game, Washington erupted for six runs in the seventh yesterday. The Nats have already had as many sterling late-inning rallies as some teams mount by the all-star break. Last year, when the Expos trailed after seven innings, they were 3-75. This year, the Nats are 3-4. Yesterday, they trailed after six, which would have been almost certain defeat last year (6-70), yet they won.

"I had nothing. But I battled," said starter Esteban Loaiza, who allowed three runs in six stubborn innings.

As advertised, this is a tightly bonded team with a chip on its shoulder after years of disrespect and anonymity in Montreal.

Though they're 8-4, the Nationals have been outscored 61-57. Lose big, but win close. "We play fundamental team baseball. We don't give in early. So we stay close," said reliever Joey Eischen. "If you give us a chance to take it to you late, we do it."

Every time they look around these days the Nats find something unexpected. Saturday night was a stunner. Scouts have raved about 6-foot-5 John Patterson since he was the No. 5 overall pick in the 1996 draft. But he's had Tommy John surgery, trades and detours. At 27, is he about to put it together? On Saturday night, after watching his seven scoreless innings, Bob Boone, the great ex-catcher in the Nats' front office, said, "Nobody in the National League has better stuff than Patterson."

While the local jubilation about the Nationals and Orioles leading the two toughest divisions in the sport is almost certainly temporary, the underlying trends in attendance that have been revealed may have powerful long-term effects.

For 34 years, baseball has debated whether Washington would support another baseball team. And for about 25 years the sport has also argued whether the Washington-Baltimore market had enough baseball fans for two teams.

Many will assume that nothing can be learned from the first three home games of a baseball season. That's wrong. Year after year, the large majority of teams reveal their general attendance level for the season -- excellent, good, average, poor or terrible -- in their first home series. The only reason we can't reach fairly broad conclusions about Nationals attendance is because the city has had no team for 34 years. There's no parallel, no comparable case history.

Still, we should pay attention. Not to the Opening Night sellout crowd. Everybody sells out the opener. However, the crowds of 34,943 and 35,463 at RFK the last two days to watch Arizona, the worst team in baseball last year, is important. Especially because the Nats went head-to-head with the toughest ticket competition they'll face all season -- a Yankees series at Camden Yards.

In almost every town in every year, the size of crowds at the second and third games of the season are a litmus test. Not the only one, of course. Long losing streaks are a test of fan loyalty. So are late-season games when a team's pennant race chances are gone. But, year after year, few tickets are harder to sell than games No. 2 and 3. They seem anticlimactic after the opener and have poor advance sales because fans fear chilly weather. School is still in session. And, besides, unless the opponent is a drawing card, why bother to attend with so many games left to play?

To see how exceptional the Nationals' average of 35,203 fans was this weekend, compare it to the Orioles' average attendance in their second and third games: 19,405, including the smallest crowd in Camden Yards history in their third game. In fact, in 81 home dates last year the Orioles had only 21 crowds bigger than Saturday's 34,943 in RFK.

Only very good baseball towns escape attendance disaster in games two and three. Consider the staggering gap in many cities between '05 openers and the average attendance over the next two games. Oakland: 44,815 vs. 12,983. Milwaukee: 42,458 vs. 10,974. Florida: 57,405 vs. 19,713. White Sox: 38,141 vs. 10,664. Detroit: 44,105 vs. 12,316. Texas: 50,054 vs. 22,343. Toronto: 50,560 vs. 25,805.

A few baseball-crazy cities with smallish ballparks -- such as Fenway Park and Wrigley Field -- show no attendance drop. The town that Washington resembles most closely so far is NL champion St. Louis, which drew 50,074 on Opening Day, then averaged 38,607 for the next two dates. No one of sound mind would compare Washington to St. Louis, one of the greatest baseball towns, on so little evidence.

Nevertheless, 70,406 people came to an old park with few amenities to see a team that lost 95 games last year. That's in the face of 96,481 fans in Camden Yards who had been siphoned off by the glamorous O's-Yankees grudge rivalry.

On Opening Night, Nationals President Tony Tavares said that he both predicted, and hoped, that Washington would draw 2,430,000 fans this year. Or 30,000 a game -- the major league average. At that level, baseball would be happy, prospective buyers would line up and future attendance in a new Southeast ballpark might, someday, be exceptional. Tony, it's not going to be 30,000. It's going to be more. This weekend said so. The only question is, "How many more?"

© 2005 The Washington Post Company