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Cursed by the Casual Fan?
Superstitious Nats Devotees Pin Losses on Fair-Weather Element in the Stands

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 22, 2005

When the bandwagoners first showed up -- yapping on their cell phones, getting up for snacks during crucial at-bats and leaving two innings early to beat the traffic-- the old-timers among Washington Nationals fans tried to accept them.

These new fans had only adopted the Nationals in June, when word spread that the team had won 10 games in a row and climbed to the top of its division.

True, many of the fans didn't know the center fielder's name. But the old guard -- the season ticket-holding, Internet message-board-posting fans who had kept up with every game since all the way back in April -- was willing to forgive. Winning will do that.

But now after 11 losses in the team's last 15 games, puncturing the good times that had been associated with major league baseball's return to Washington, the tolerance has melted like cotton candy in a rain delay.

Some among the old guard have started to wonder whether the newbies are giving the Nats bad karma.

"For those of us who have been there since the beginning, we know that sort of magical feeling -- how much energy the team draws from the crowd," said Colin Mills, president of the Nationals fan club.

After the invasion of newcomers, he said, "That magic just wasn't there in the same way."

This tension within the Washington fan base would seem absurd in such cities as Boston and Chicago, where hard-core fans have won the right to be cranky through decades of near misses. Despite the Nationals' short existence, though, the differences between serious and casual fans already are said to be very real.

Dave Lanham, a regular at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, recalled a game when two men sitting near him spent inning after inning discussing a legal case. They couldn't keep track of what was happening on the field. One man asked, " 'How did Carroll get on base?' " said Lanham, referring to Nationals infielder Jamey Carroll. "I'm like, 'He walked!' " Lanham said.

Still, Lanham said he has been glad to see the new faces and believes they could become good Nats boosters in time.

Then came this month, in which the team's early season momentum evaporated. As the setbacks piled up, some fans began to look around the stadium and ask: Is it us?

Hugh B. Kaufman, an administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency, said he could feel bad vibes in the air at Monday's game against the Colorado Rockies. The crowd was quieter than usual, and when he started cheering loudly, a woman in the row in front of him told him to shush. Kaufman said he tried to get other fans to bounce up and down and shake the RFK stands -- a D.C. tradition -- and failed.

Worst of all, he said, when foul balls wound up in the stands, adults jockeyed with kids for them, breaking the unspoken rule that the kids should have first dibs.

"Bad karma," he said.

The team lost that game, 5-4, after third baseman Vinny Castilla committed an error in the ninth inning. That did it. The next morning, Kaufman aired his concerns on fan message boards, asking others whether they had seen a " 'Bad' Element Starting to Come to RFK Nats Games?"

Others on the Internet boards agreed that they had felt something strange; The crowd was "flat," "lame," "out of sync."

"Like it was rookie night," John Posner of Huntingtown, who was at Monday's game, said in a telephone interview later.

To break the hex, Kaufman came up with a solution that might sound weird to outsiders but makes perfect sense in the world of sports voodoo -- where fans hope a lucky shirt, a loud cheer or a specific pregame meal might change the performance of million-dollar athletes.

"I have to find a rubber chicken," he told himself.

Before Tuesday's game, he beheaded the chicken in a brief ceremony, then presented the decapitated bird to a pair of nearby Nationals players.

The ritual seemed to work, at least for one night, Kaufman said. The crowd was louder, and the team won. "The karma was broken," Kaufman said.

In case it comes back, he has another chicken.

Voodoo aside, Mills, the fan club president, said he thinks this time of hardship could be an important one for the Nationals' evolving fan base. It's a teachable moment for fans who weren't paying attention when the team was struggling to achieve a winning record. That was in the old days, late April.

"It's teaching the people who learned about the Nationals last week or last month that life is not always a yellow-brick road," Mills said. "It's not always a bowl of cherries."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company