Host of Problems At New-Look RFK

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, July 21, 2006

If you are one of about 110,000 people who are expected to attend the Nationals' "grand reopening" at RFK Stadium for their three-game series against the Cubs this weekend, try to focus on the new cuisine at the stadium -- crab cakes, "riblets," chili, kosher knishes, burritos, stuffed potatoes, beef brisket, fresh popcorn and microbrews. The "Texas sausage" is nice.

But for heaven's sake, whatever you do, don't look at the team. And don't ask, "How's that new stadium coming along?"

If you get to RFK, you'll see a fan festival on the D.C. Armory mall, a fan zone inside RFK with games for kids, plus giveaway items like Nats hats today and T-shirts tomorrow. You know, like a real big league team that markets itself. You'll see banners and red carpets, some new flowers and cleaner concourses. Nothing radical, but a decent quick facelift.

But you won't see John Patterson, the team's best pitcher. He's out four to six weeks after surgery on his pitching arm revealed "several areas of constriction within the median nerve," which runs the length of the arm. So, if he gets back to the mound by Labor Day, he'll still have just one win, not the 15 or so that seemed reasonable before the season.

You also won't see Jose Guillen, who spent part of last season as the No. 4 hitter. The one player the Nats most wanted to trade to anybody -- they'd have dealt him for a bratwurst and a micro brewed beer -- now can't be traded at all to anybody. "Have you ever heard of 'addition by subtraction?' " said one front-office member last month about the Nats' trade plans for the right fielder. Guillen is now on the DL and is off to see the wizard, orthopedist James Andrews, whose name often means "see you next season."

Don't expect to spot Jose Vidro, either, though anything is possible these days in the Nats' daily trade-mart soap opera. On Tuesday, Vidro batted in the first inning, then left the game exactly as his batting average fell to .300. Ostensibly, he has a minor day-to-day injury. Quite plausibly the Nats think they can get more in a trade for a .300-hitting ex-all-star. Not a .299 man.

However, be sure to come early and see whether Alfonso Soriano takes ground balls at second base during batting practice, as he did in Miami this week. Yes, at second base!? Are the Nats merely re-sharpening his old infield skills so they can tell another team, "Alfonso's all ready to go. He only booted seven fungos this week."

Or, if Vidro is traded, does -- cue the center field fireworks display -- Soriano sign a long-term deal with the Nats before July 31st as a second baseman? The Nats already traded their best second base prospect, Brendan Harris, last week.

Or did that devilish Jim Bowden just whisper to Soriano: "Go take a few grounders. This will drive 'em crazy."

The Nats may not be much of a ballclub this season, but they're more fun than a barrel of trade rumors. Anybody in the rotation who pitches a decent game starts to look like Steve McQueen digging a tunnel out of prison. If Ramon Ortiz or Tony Armas Jr. managed, somehow, to have back-to-back quality starts would they suddenly find themselves on the mound for a possible World Series team?

If they want to know what that feels like, they can ask Austin Kearns, recently arrived from Cincinnati. To pick out Kearns at RFK, just look for the outfielder wearing the black armband. Kearns is in mourning -- for himself. He not only got traded from a contender in his home town where he had spent every day of his career, but got shipped to a rebuilding last-place club.

Since Kearns and Felipe Lopez became Nats, they've played like two guys who think you can reverse a trade if you hit less than zero. Sorry, guys, it can't be done, no matter how many men you leave on base. You're stuck here. Think of us as Siberia with humidity. (Try the new catfish platter on the 200 level, it's not bad.)

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