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Sports views: Washington hopes wait was worth it

Posted: Friday, April 15, 2005

Love makes the world go 'round, but it still takes cash to make the turnstiles spin.

Fortunately for baseball, Washington showed up with plenty of both Thursday night to welcome back a team that fled this same field in a panic some 34 years earlier, while then-owner Bob Short hung in effigy in the stands and fans forced a forfeit by storming the field to rip up the turf in search of a keepsake.

The same baseball that pitcher Joe Grzenda was holding on the mound that evening has sat in a drawer at his home ever since. The former Washington Senator brought it back with him to RFK Stadium always hoping for just such an occasion, and handed it to President Bush for the ceremonial first pitch. That old leather sphere, which Bush threw high and inside, might be the only thing within the entire metropolitan area that has remained largely unchanged.

The population has doubled since 1971, to about 5.8 million, and the cost of doing business with Major League Baseball has jumped several times that. The team Short bought for $9.4 million in 1968 figures to go for more than $300 million once MLB, which has owned it since the end of the 2001 season, settles on a buyer. That despite the fact that the reborn Nationals are essentially the same team that lost 95 games and drew an average of 9,357 fans last season while playing in Montreal as the Expos.

''I won't lie,'' Washington leadoff hitter Brad Wilkerson said. ''Baseball is such a long season and some days, when you're dragging, you look up and see 5,000, or 10,000 people in the stands, it's tough. But when it's 30,000 or 40,000, it's a different energy level. It helps you focus.''

No matter where this reincarnated version of the Senators finish in the National League East — the Nationals beat Arizona 5-3 to improve their record to 6-4 in this young season — $300 million or more will turn out to be a bargain. That's largely because of the largesse of the D.C. City Council, which put together the most generous deal ever shoved across a table at MLB, and the unrequited love Washington has nursed these past three decades for baseball.

After a brief rebellion in December led by chairman Linda Cropp, the city council signed off on a package to refurbish RFK for three seasons while building a brand new stadium along the Anacostia River waterfront. The latest cost of the deal was estimated at $581 million. The fans, meanwhile, have already bought almost 2 million tickets, nearly double what the Senators sold in the best season of their 11-year run.

Better still, they packed the place on opening night, enduring long lines at security checkpoints and the thrown-together look of the stadium, and spent money like the rest of the tourists flooding the capital in cool spring weather.

Graphic designer Malcolm McGaughy and his 4-year-old son Aidan, from Centreville, Va., had already dropped $800 on tickets for 20 games, $160 on father and son jerseys, $200 for additional clothing and souvenirs. Their last purchase was a commemorative Opening Night beanbag bear for $24.

''I didn't tell his mother how much I was spending for his jersey,'' McGaughy conceded.

Considering what everybody else laid out, he had nothing to be ashamed of.

''It was a long struggle,'' said commissioner Bud Selig, who spent the first five innings sitting in a skybox with President Bush. ''But the people wanted baseball here and we wanted to come. So it all worked out.''

For one night, at least.

Selig spent the previous evening at a party at the home of political columnist and inveterate baseball fan George Will. While there, he ran into Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, whose ballclub plays less than an hour away, and whose objections made up the last obstacle to returning a team to Washington.

''We talked about baseball,'' Selig said, which was probably a good idea given the subject of their last few conversations.

Even more than the other lords of baseball, Angelos was determined to get his pound of flesh from this deal. What he settled on, finally, was a 90 percent stake in the regional sports network that will televise the two teams' games. The Nationals receive $21 million a year from the deal, and after 10 years, they stand to get a 30 percent stake of the network.

If that seems like a lousy deal, well, there's a lot about the return of baseball to Washington that stinks.

But when you stand behind home plate in the sunlight and stare into the upper deck, standing out amid all the yellow seats are a handful of white ones. Each represents a spot where former Senators slugger Frank Howard landed one of his 480 foot-plus home runs, testaments to a past that a generation of fans refused to let disappear.

Vinny Castilla, one of just two current Nationals who was alive the last time baseball was played here, looked at those seats and swallowed hard.

''Man,'' he said, ''It's a long way away.''

And an even longer time in coming.

Here's hoping it turns out to be worth the wait.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org



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