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

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.

We started the game in field box seats less than 10 yards from first base, close enough to hear the first-base coach pester the umpire over called strikes. Later, after our search for the home run ball, we sat in the picnic area overlooking the Senators' bullpen. I watched intently as Rueckel's warm-up pitches hissed toward the catcher. The ball moved so fast I couldn't track it from his hand to the glove. The Senators had been down 5-0 when Escobar hit his two-run home run, but had built a comfortable margin when Rueckel took the mound. The Senators won, 11-7.

Acting on a tip from the groundskeeper, we stood outside the locker room with several boys and their parents. Escobar autographed the ball he had launched over the fence and Rueckel signed the second ball that an usher had given to Jonah. In almost 40 years of attending major league games, I've never gone home with even one ball.

We woke up to rain the next day, so we set out to see some of Harrisburg's indoor attractions. The National Civil War Museum tells the story of the war through videos, maps and artifacts, with a particular focus on the Battle of Gettysburg, just 40 miles to the south.

At the State Museum of Pennsylvania, we saw several paintings the state commissioned shortly after the war to commemorate the battle, including a 16-by-32-foot depiction of Pickett's Charge. We got our heads out of the war with the museum's excellent planetarium show on constellations.

For lunch, we headed to the Broad Street Market, which promotes itself as the oldest continuous farmers market in the United States. We had a cheese-steak sub and pizza and picked up some apples to bring home.

Finally, the rain let up and we returned to City Island and Commerce Bank Park for the Saturday night game. Most of the island's attractions -- the miniature train that circles it, the horse carriage rides and the batting cages -- were closed, either because it was too early in the season or because of the rain. The miniature golf course was open, but we bypassed it when we heard the distinctive sound of wood rapping on a baseball.

Following our ears, we found a batting cage behind the stadium. We watched as shortstop Ian Desmond, Escobar and others swatted coach Mike Hart's pitches into the nets enclosing them. Every once in a while, Hart would stop to instruct a hitter to shift his weight or reposition his hands. We stood for another half an hour, soaking up how the pros get ready for a game.

Manager John Stearns came out and watched for a bit, saying little in the hushed circle of players waiting their turn. Escobar lined a drive that zoomed over Hart's head.

"That was nice," the manager said.

And how. It was all nice, nice and intimate.

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