Fans' Rally Cry: New Nats Owner!

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Washington Nationals fan William Washburn, 60, had a pork barbecue sandwich, a clear view of left field and a warm, sunny afternoon for the team's home opener yesterday at RFK Stadium.

What more could he ask for? Washburn was able to think of something.

"I'm really angry at the way Bud Selig is treating this team," Washburn said of the baseball commissioner. "We're ready for an owner, a real D.C. owner."

Washburn, of University Park, wasn't the only fan among the announced crowd of 40,530 who felt that way. On a day when the Nationals lost to the New York Mets, 7-1, some fans, perhaps unlike last season, were not content just to have baseball back in Washington.

Fans said they want a winner and are eager for Selig to sell the Nationals to an ownership group, a process that has taken longer than many expected.

"It hurts the team because it postpones their ability to put a winning team on the field," said Patrick Morris, 45, of Rockville, who came with son Daniel, 12. Noting that the game was not sold out, he added: "I think Washington will back a winner."

Last year, fans returned to RFK to watch baseball for the first time in 34 years after Major League Baseball moved the Montreal Expos to Washington and renamed the team. The Nationals are scheduled to play at RFK until the city builds a stadium complex along the Anacostia River in Southeast.

Selig and other baseball officials have said recently, including during testimony before a congressional committee, that an owner probably will be named in the next few weeks. Three groups emerged months ago as front-runners: the Washington Baseball Club, headed by Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients; the Bethesda-based family of developer Theodore Lerner; and a conglomerate headed by Indianapolis media mogul Jeffrey Smulyan.

But fans yesterday said they were tired of the delay and put some of the blame for the sluggish opening-game ticket sales on baseball officials. Patches of empty yellow seats were visible in the upper deck at RFK, whose capacity is 45,250 for baseball.

"It needs to get settled," said Anthony Nelson, 34, of Manassas, who was wearing a blue Nationals cap and red team shirt. "Nationals equipment has been selling like crazy, and if we had an owner, it would be going even faster."

With media reports that plenty of seats were available before yesterday's game, hundreds took advantage of the pleasant weather and bought tickets at the gate.

Greg and Lisa Nelson of Minneapolis were visiting the city with their children Ben, 10, and twins Abby and Will, 8. Although they mostly were touring museums and monuments, the Nelsons decided to catch a game after hearing that they could still get tickets.

"We saw an ad for a family special, but then we just bought the least-expensive tickets," Lisa said of their $12 seats. Added Greg: "This will be a good break from all the walking around town we've been doing."

Lynette Jackson, 50, of the District took off from work at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and arrived at RFK with her family to buy tickets.

"I called in to ask for leave and didn't tell them why," she said.

In the stadium, fans experienced some of the same long waits for food and drinks as they did at last year's home opener. Although Aramark, which provides the concessions services, repositioned and added food stands -- including such fare as Red Hot & Blue barbecue and Papa John's pizza -- spectators still were crowded in the narrow corridors of 45-year-old RFK.

Vice President Cheney threw out the ceremonial first pitch, a right-handed toss that bounced in the dirt to the outside of the plate before being scooped up by catcher Brian Schneider. Cheney, booed by some as he walked to the mound, got even more catcalls after his throw -- a far cry from President Bush's fastball at last year's home opener.

Then the crowd cheered as the Nationals, in their white uniforms with red trim, took the field. Fans made more noise in the second inning when first baseman Nick Johnson slapped a single to center field, then stole second, his 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame sliding in ahead of the throw.

But the Mets took control in the fourth inning with two runs on three hits, then scored two more runs in the fifth.

As for the fans, they were left thinking about what could be when an owner is selected, someone who, presumably, could pony up more money than the team's $60 million payroll this season to lure top free agents.

"D.C. needs something to uplift them," said Gail Hodgdon, 41, of Falls Church, a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan who also roots for the Nationals. "They need real leadership."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company