An Epic Weekend of Baseball With the Nats' Farm Team in Harrisburg, Pa.

The Harrisburg Senators, a Double-A farm club of the Washington Nationals, play at Commerce Bank Park on City Island in the Susquehanna River. Baseball here, where future Nats train, is intimate and friendly.
The Harrisburg Senators, a Double-A farm club of the Washington Nationals, play at Commerce Bank Park on City Island in the Susquehanna River. Baseball here, where future Nats train, is intimate and friendly. (Photos By Sean Simmers For The Washington Post)

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By David J. Hoff
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Hey, Dad," my 8-year-old son, Jonah, said, "I was thinking we could go look for that home run ball behind the fence."

Two innings earlier, Alex Escobar of the Harrisburg Senators had blasted one, sparking a comeback for his team, the Double-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. For all we knew, the ball was still sitting behind the outfield fence, a stretch of ads for local restaurants, dry cleaners and the state lottery.

A free ball is a free ball, so we headed down the right-field line. A groundskeeper approached, but not to turn us back.

"Hey, you want this ball?" he asked Jonah.

"Thanks," he said. "We were wondering if we could go look for that home run Escobar hit."

"That's it," he said.

By the time we left the park that evening, Jonah had had that ball signed by Escobar, and another one -- given to him by a kindly usher -- was signed by Danny Rueckel, the reliever who closed out the game. A two-ball night; you don't get that in the majors.

If you travel 115 miles north to Pennsylvania's capital city, I can't promise you'll be that lucky. But I can guarantee you'll enjoy some intimate baseball and get an up-close look at some future Washington Nationals. From seats on the foul lines, you'll hear their on-the-fly shouts of "I got it" as they hustle under infield pop-ups. From the picnic area overlooking the bullpen, you'll feel the fastballs buzz by as the relief pitchers warm up 15 feet away.

And you can write your own scouting report on prospects that may be playing in Washington soon. (Tip: Kory Casto lives up to his billing as the Nationals' 2005 minor league player of the year.) When the Montreal Expos moved to Washington, they brought with them a farm system that includes the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs, Single-A teams in Woodbridge, Savannah, Ga., and Winooski, Vt., and these Double-A Harrisburg Senators.

The likes of Jose Vidro, Ryan Church, Tony Armas Jr., Brian Schneider and several other current Nationals stopped here on their way to the big leagues. Ryan Zimmerman, the rookie third baseman the Nats expect to anchor their team for the next decade, played more than 60 games for the Senators last summer on his march to RFK Stadium, bypassing Triple-A altogether.

You get close to future stars like that for cheaper than just about any seat in RFK. The best box perch at Commerce Bank Park will set you back $9; you can sit in general admission for $5 ($3 for kids and seniors).

The park is a mix of seats and bleachers built on an island filled with other recreational attractions in the middle of the Susquehanna River. When Jonah and I walked through the turnstiles on a Friday night in April, the first of our two-game weekend in Harrisburg, an usher handed me a promotional Senators hat. We ate dinner (two hot dogs, an order of fries, a bottle of water and a beer) for $12. On our second night, we stayed for a 20-minute fireworks show sponsored by a local bagel shop.


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