Washington's return to the major leagues this season has seen the Nationals achieve far more on the field than anyone could have expected, in front of large crowds in cozy if outdated RFK Stadium. A dream season so far, even with the current mini-slump, except for the frustration many fans have experienced trying to locate the team's games on television.

A legal fight between the Peter Angelos-controlled Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) and Comcast SportsNet may be an annoying sideshow to the exciting feature playing out daily on the field. And while Angelos remains No. 1 on the list of unpopular sports figures in town, MASN analyst Ron Darling is moving up fast in the controversial category.

Darling, 44, spent 13 seasons in the major leagues, pitching nine years for the New York Mets and parts of five for the Oakland Athletics, compiling an admirable record of 136-116, with a 3.87 ERA. While certainly not the most famous Yale graduate to hold a job in Washington, he is among the best ex-Yale athletes working here.

Still, mentioning his name to fans draws immediate and opinionated responses: "The worst," said one friend who never misses the telecasts. "He's getting better all the time," another viewer said. WTEM's Andy Pollin has been a frequent critic, remarking on the air that Darling "is a master of the obvious."

"I feel pressure to improve," Darling said before Wednesday's game at RFK. "I've heard the criticism . . . and I'm trying to take it constructively. I come off quiet, but I have a strong will. I also have been criticized before in my life, when I pitched for the New York Mets, and they ran my picture on the back page of the tabloids with the headline 'DONE' overlaid on my picture."

Darling and play-by-play announcer Mel Proctor, a solid and smart veteran of more than 25 years, were thrown together two days before the start of the season as the Nationals, Major League Baseball and MASN scrambled to put together a package. When Darling took the job, he was living in the San Francisco area dividing his time between working as a banker and doing some television work for Fox and pregame duties for the A's. "I got a call from MASN the Saturday before the start of the season," Darling said. "If I ever wanted to do this for a living, this was the chance."

"We met in a cab going to the ballpark for the first game," said Proctor, who had rented an apartment and allowed Darling the use of his couch. The two eat dinner together at Old Ebbitt Grill nearly every night and while Darling now has his own place, Proctor said: "We've become friends. Ron knows the game, learns quickly and has a chance to be good."

My initial reaction to the Proctor-Darling team was they didn't seem to talk to each other, with Darling having no feel for Washington. Also, his sentences often were disconnected snippets and disjointed, sort of like this column. But he's improved, setting up Proctor and trying to better project his knowledge of the game. He still needs to tell more stories about his own experiences in the game.

"I didn't know much about Washington," he said. "We played an exhibition game here about 20 years ago. I think it snowed. That's it. I talk once a week with a Washingtonian, trying to learn about the town." He said he has a coach in Los Angeles with whom he'll visit during the all-star break. "My goal is to give the viewers intelligent analysis and spread some humor in a season that's different from any I've ever seen because of how special this team has become."

Added Proctor, speaking of himself, Darling and every employee in the Nats' front office, "We're all on one-year contracts."

Adu as Lightning Rod

Alexi Lalas, president and general manager for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, really touched a nerve when he said he'd love to acquire Freddy Adu from D.C. United and would see that the 16-year-old would get on the field more than he does now.

United President Kevin Payne told The Post's Steven Goff and MLS Commissioner Don Garber that he felt Lalas's remarks were "tampering" and his criticisms of United an "outrageous situation" considering United has won four MLS championships in the league's 10 years to the MetroStars' none.

Bruce Arena, the U.S. national men's coach and former coach of United, believes United Coach Peter Nowak is doing a good job with Adu. "[Adu's] doing fine," Arena said. "Some fans and Freddy's inner circle may have some unrealistic aspirations. But it's not easy playing professional soccer at his age. It's still early in his career and he's moving along the way he should. He's going to turn out to be a good player."

On Thursday, Goff reported that Adu earns $550,000 (third among MLS players), leaving me to ask: Why do MLS and United pay Adu so much if they are only going to play him half a game? Potential goes a long way these days, although -- with all due respect to Arena -- I would find a way to get him more playing time.

Misplacing the Keys

I consider the Wizards losing Larry Hughes to Cleveland via free agency Friday on par with the Redskins losing cornerback Fred Smoot to the Minnesota Vikings earlier this year. Some guys are key to a team's identity and that's what Hughes and Smoot were to their teams.

Hughes signed a five-year deal worth an estimated $65 million to $70 million to play with LeBron James and work for Cavs GM Danny Ferry (how's that for irony, son of former Bullets GM signs key free agent from father's old team). That's about $2 million per year more than what the Wizards reportedly wanted to pay Hughes, who averaged 22 points a game and led the NBA in steals.

No doubt Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld will come up with a capable replacement -- and there are reasons for not keeping Hughes. But the team is coming off its best season in more than 20 years and management needed to keep it together.

* Retired Redskins Hall of Famer Bobby Mitchell will host his 15th annual Hall of Fame event at Lansdowne Resort this weekend for the benefit of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, with dozens of retired athletes expected to attend. Mitchell, who worked in the Redskins' front office for more than 30 years after his retirement in 1968, was asked what advice he'd give safety Sean Taylor.

"He ought to sit down and talk with Ken Houston [retired Hall of Fame safety] about how to handle yourself as a pro. Sean has the ability to get to the Hall of Fame, if he plays 12 years in the NFL. Why hurt your chances to do that?"

Have a question or comment? Reach me at Talkback@washpost.com.

United teenage sensation Freddy Adu earns more than half a million dollars a season -- third most in Major League Soccer -- but plays only about half of each game. What gives?