Preparing for D.C. baseball’s return

VIERA, Fla. – Amid the smell of sunscreen under the blistering heat of a Florida sun, a D.C. team is playing professional baseball for the first time in 34 years.

Though the Nationals have taken the field nearly every day for the last month, most area fans have not seen the team with their own eyes because the club had been training 873 miles from downtown Washington.

But on Sunday, all of that will change, when baseball returns to RFK Stadium with an exhibition game against the Mets.

Earlier this month, as he chatted with reporters in his Florida office, Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame former slugger who is managing the team, said he is looking forward to the beginning of the season.

“It brings a smile to your face,” Robinson said of the move.

The team, formerly the Montreal Expos, had been stranded in Canada until this winter, and for the last several years questions have surrounded the team regarding a possible move. For a time, baseball executives even considered eliminating the team altogether. Robinson said now, the team “feels a little more secure.”

When a reporter noted that Robinson had been asked questions about the move to D.C. “about a million times,” Robinson replied jokingly, “No, not a million. About 990,000.”

“There were always questions of ‘when, when, when,'” Robinson added. “Now, this is it. It feels good.”

Because of a large number of season ticket purchases, the Nationals have sold more than 1.85 million tickets, The Baltimore Sun reported. The team sold 50,000 individual game tickets within six hours of putting them on sale March 12. Before its inaugural season has even started, the Nationals have sold more tickets than 19 of baseball’s 30 teams sold in all of 2004.

Nationals catcher Brian Schneider said he believes local fans will enjoy watching the team.

“I think it’s going to be real easy for them to like us. We play hard and never give up,” he said.

Schneider joked that when he first walked into the team clubhouse and saw the Nationals new red uniforms, he thought he had been traded. He said he has seen lots of national media coverage this spring. Though fans in Montreal were good to the team, he said, he’s looking forward to being a part of the “many firsts” the Nationals will provide D.C. fans.

Relief pitcher Chad Cordero visited D.C. in February to participate in a news conference and sign autographs for fans at ESPN Zone. He said he enjoyed everything D.C. has to offer, including all of the monuments and the White House.

Cordero said he and his teammates’ goal this year will simply be to play the best baseball they can. He said the Nationals hope to be competing the whole year and “stick in there with the rest of the teams in the East.”

Realistically, the team’s chances of competing for the National League East division title are slim, given the formidable lineups the Braves, Phillies and Mets have assembled. But at this point, the team really has nowhere to move but up. At 67-95, the Expos were the fourth-worst team in baseball last year.

However, General Manager Jim Bowden has quickly put together the foundations for a team that should almost certainly improve this year and will keep games interesting for fans.

On the corners of the infield, the Nationals have Vinny Castilla at third base and Nick Johnson at first. Castilla led the league with 131 RBI last season with the Rockies, but some suggested that feat may simply have been the result of Colorado’s thin air. Manager Frank Robinson described RFK as a “neutral” stadium that will favor neither pitchers nor hitters.

Johnson has demonstrated he has the skills to help the team, with a .422 on-base percentage in 2003. But he has not played a full season in two years due to injuries and Robinson has said it’s “hard to judge his results” so far.

Regardless of which players succeed on the field this year, the Nationals will, at last, have a home.

For two years, the Expos played a portion of their “home” games in Puerto Rico in an effort to increase attendance. Nationals pitcher Jon Rauch, who posted a 2.70 ERA in spring training through Thursday, said having a permanent home should help the team. He said he is looking forward to playing in a city where the team will have a strong fan base.

“It takes a lot of pressure off,” Rauch said. “The guys had to deal with two different cities called home.”

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