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Beguiled by the Boys of Summer
The Nationals, Improbably in 1st Place, Inspire Lovefest at RFK

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 13, 2005

Like the first summer love of your youth, the Washington Nationals revealed all sorts of tantalizing possibilities to their enamored fans over the past two weeks, during a remarkable homestand in which the debutant team rose from a fragile fourth place to a resounding first.

What occurred over this particular fortnight has left open the possibility that this is more than just a summer fling, and that the spark will still be there when summer turns to fall and the playoffs begin to beckon. The Nationals played 13 games against four opponents and won 12 of them, including yesterday's 3-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners, their 10th win in a row.

This is what it feels like to be a nascent playoff contender in a new city as it is falling for its team: As the Nationals recorded the final out of the game, a tough grounder up the middle handled expertly by shortstop Cristian Guzman, the team burst out of its dugout and the crowd of 37,170 rose to its feet. The standing ovation lasted as long as it took the Nationals to make their way off the field, with some of the players applauding back to the fans.

"It gave me goosebumps," left fielder Ryan Church said. "I've never experienced anything like that."

In the larger baseball world, what the Nationals did over these two weeks was to establish themselves as legitimate contenders, opening a 1 1/2 -game lead in the National League East Division with 16 weeks left to play and shocking a sport that viewed them as no better than a mediocre team when the season began.

"Nobody could have foreseen [such a successful] homestand," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "I know I couldn't. It's just been an unbelievable homestand for everybody -- the organization, the players and the fans."

In equally impressive fashion, the Nationals are winning the race for the hearts of the local populace, which has been starved for a summertime sporting diversion since the old Senators left town in 1971, and which has been coming out to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in increasing numbers this month to witness what could be Washington's first pennant race in several generations. Yesterday's crowd pushed the Nationals' season attendance total to 1,056,642, surpassing the 1946 Senators for the highest overall attendance in Washington baseball history.

"I think both the team and the fans are sensing that the winning is for real," said John Wortman, a Nationals fan from Bethesda. "This taste of being in first place is going to keep the enthusiasm going throughout -- who knows? -- maybe the whole century."

It isn't merely that the Nationals are winning. It's how they're winning that has stirred their fans' passions. Seven of the team's 12 wins during the homestand were by one run, and 11 were come-from-behind victories. Those close decisions -- and unanticipated performances from players such as first baseman Nick Johnson, closer Chad Cordero and starting pitcher Livan Hernandez -- have helped the relationship sizzle when it easily could have fizzled.

"It's amazing. They fight to the end," said Kevin Miller of Alexandria. "There's just something about this team. Every game, you wonder how they're going to do it this time."

When the Nationals arrived home May 30 from a debilitating 2-7 road trip, they had every appearance of a team about to experience a severe collapse. They had 11 players on the disabled list, the most of any team in baseball.

But instead of collapsing, they exploded, equaling the New York Yankees' 10-game winning streak last month for the longest in baseball this season. How long has it been since a Washington team was in first place as late as June 12? That would be 1933, the year the Senators lost the World Series to the New York Giants.

How important is that? In the last five years across baseball, 60 percent (18 of 30) of the teams that led their divisions on the morning of June 13 went on to win the division title.

Yesterday evening, just as the region's affinity with its newest team was deepening, the Nationals packed their bags and left town for a 10-day road trip. So it goes with summer loves. Take care. Promise to stay in touch.

But, for the next 10 days, that won't be so easy. The next three games, in California against the Anaheim Angels, start at 10:05 p.m. Eastern time, too late to make most editions of the morning papers.

What about television? Tonight's and tomorrow's games are available only to fans with DirecTV service. Wednesday's game gets a nationwide bump from ESPN2. And radio? Many local fans have complained that the signals from the Nationals' local stations are too weak to receive clearly.

If you can't watch the games, can't listen to the games and can't read about the games, can this relationship survive? Fans are hopeful the inevitable sale of the team -- which is owned by Major League Baseball -- will improve the situation. But that doesn't help in the heat of the present enchantment.

"It's an absolute disgrace," said Ken Zacharias of Burke. "They're not getting the buildup they deserve. This team is for real."

Perhaps there is no better -- or more visible -- measure of the team's burgeoning popularity than the explosive multiplying of red Nationals caps that can be spotted on heads around town -- from downtown sidewalks to Metro trains and especially in the stands at RFK Stadium.

"I call it the 'Red Hat Phenomenon,' " said Bethesda's Wortman. "Earlier this season, I was feeling lonely wearing mine. But now, I see kids and adults everywhere wearing them. For me, I feel like it shows that the city has connected to this team."

Said Nationals center fielder Brad Wilkerson, "We're thankful to have a home town and a fan base that notices what we're doing."

After the game, pulsing Latin music thumped out of the clubhouse boombox as the Nationals dressed and headed for the airport for a trip that will take them to Anaheim, Texas and Pittsburgh before returning home June 24.

That's the tantalizing promise of summer loves: If you're patient and if you stay true, they can come back to you.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company