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Future of Nats and Their Neighborhood Is Up to Us

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, April 9, 2009

There was supposed to be a neighborhood here -- teeming streets, happy people sharing nights of cheer and cheers . . . even, perhaps, an occasional win. Instead, the blocks around Washington's new baseball stadium remain largely empty, an eerie expanse of flattened lots so bereft of activity that they can be used for but one thing -- parking.

The promise that the return of baseball brought to this forlorn part of Washington seems distant now. One hundred and fifty-four buildings have been demolished in what used to be the city's industrial zone, a back lot dotted with seedy nightspots and dingy warehouses, all bulldozed to make way for a stadium where men play games and fathers and sons dream together.

The idea was that by building the stadium, the city would unleash imaginations and wallets. Bars and restaurants would spring up, and tax dollars would flow. A grand circle of investment would be completed.

Then everything froze. Six buildings have been finished since the first Opening Day at Nationals Park last spring, according to JDLand, an encyclopedic blog by Washington Post computer wiz Jacqueline Dupree that chronicles the transformation of the stadium area. Several hundred new residents call the still-unnamed neighborhood home, but come Monday, when the Nats take the field for their sophomore season in the new park, fans will see even more vacant lots than last summer. The same abandoned construction pit lies directly across the street from centerfield. The office buildings erected remain mostly empty.

In addition to seeing President Obama throw out the first ball, fans will notice new trimmings on the stadium -- and on the field. A new slugger, Adam Dunn, will sport a Nationals uniform, and at the entrance, a new sculpture commemorates the only real home-run king Washington's Senators ever had, Frank Howard.

But despite the optimism each new season brings, there is a growing unease, questions about whether fans will really support the team and whether the city's investment will provide the promised returns. Times and moods change. When the city's soccer franchise asked for the same deal the Nationals got, Mayor Adrian Fenty gave D.C. United the back of his hand. They announced a move to Prince George's County, which now says it doesn't want them, either, not if it would cost the taxpayers more money they don't have.

No one builds much of anything these days. We've lost the trust we had in the idea that building begets building, that that domino effect creates the energy that sustains us.

But when the ceremonies begin Monday afternoon, and the new president -- a rare figure of trust (for now) in a damaged, skittish society -- re-creates an image from the era when men wearing fedoras and silly grins played hooky to watch the opening game, it will feel, for a little while, like spring again.

A last-place team will start fresh. The place will be packed, Nats President Stan Kasten promises. The sense of possibility -- young new pitchers, a surplus of big-league outfielders -- will intoxicate enough people that a few will say, "Hey, maybe these guys can win."

From that sprout of hope, we will cleave into two camps. Some will say it's time to return to reality: The owners aren't spending the money it takes, the team's still a loser, the game's in decline, times are tight, let's stay home and watch TV. Others will embrace possibility, believing there is a plan and it can work. They'll say that a place right next to a Metro station, with tens of thousands of people walking by each evening, can't remain empty for long.

The future of the team, the neighborhood and the economy depend on how we split between those two views. For all the pain, all the jobs and savings we've lost, the next stretch is -- as a president who stood tall only with the aid of braces taught us -- ours to make.

FDR's words about "fear itself" may sound like poetry that glosses over the reality that life is shaped by forces beyond our control. But builders want to build, owners want to win and fans want to believe.

Empty lots can send a message of risks untaken, dreams undreamed, failure. But to some eyes, empty lots look like the next great thing, playgrounds for the human spirit. It all depends on what you let yourself imagine. Each spring, when the game starts anew, there is no score.

Tomorrow on Raw Fisher at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/rawfisher: What's new at Nats Park -- a review.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential"at http://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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