SAMUEL JOHNSON called second marriages the triumph of hope over experience. By the same token, baseball spring training can be regarded as the triumph of hope over the month of February. Midway through this awful and interminable span of 28 days, one may escape for a few moments the monotony of snow so hard you can walk on it and turn instead to the sight of ballplayers on a background of Florida green going through their limbering-up motions -- a ritual as old as the National and American leagues (except that some of the players are doing yoga exercises these days).
As Washington enters its third baseball season of the 21st century, however, the important word for Nationals fans may be not "hope" but "faith," with possibly a bit of charity as well. We're not sportswriters here, but the paper does employ a number of them, and some of their unsentimental assessments of the home team have been as cold as a February day in Washington. There's not much left of the 2006 last-place Nats; it's mostly a collection of strangers in the Viera, Fla., clubhouse: many unknowns with high hopes, and some altogether too-well-knowns seeking to make a new start. The pitching staff will be whittled down from about three dozen candidates, of whom exactly one has an ensured place in the rotation.
But then there is this: a rookie manager, Manny Acta, to pull for; that one pitcher (John Patterson) who could be among the game's best; Ryan Zimmerman and Nick Johnson in the infield; a wonderfully old-fashioned catcher, Brian Schneider; and a team president, Stan Kasten, with a record of success.
Most important, though, Washington has baseball and, we hope, the patience to keep it going in this city for a long time. Every team needs a fan base that will be there through bad times and good. This season could be pretty bad, but maybe interesting, as well. It will be the last chance to take in some games at RFK Stadium, a place full of Washington sports history. RFK is old and perhaps outdated, but to some, its very lack of such amenities as luxury boxes and sky-high ticket prices is the biggest amenity of all. If you like the game, it's still a pretty good place to go.