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We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all baseball fans are created with a desire to support a home team...." � On the Fourth of July the members of the newborn Washington Nationals Fan Club will, with some pomp and solemnity, declare their baseball independence. The club's secretary, Steve Berke, a senior analyst at the Government Accountability Office who lives in Springfield, Va., has written a manifesto, to be read aloud outside RFK Stadium before the Nationals' matinee with the New York Mets; he has replaced the disenfranchised colonists of the original Declaration with the District's forsaken baseball fans, and King George III with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. "It surprised me how well the wording could be adapted to the current situation," says Berke, who moved to the D.C. area in 1974, three years after the Washington Senators left town. "I always went to Orioles games, always followed the Orioles, but only out of necessity."
Berke's declaration is self-consciously dorky, a history buff's Mad Lib, but it breathes the buoyant, proprietary attitude the District has adopted toward its Nationals, returned prodigals who have restored baseball after a generation's absence. Though the Beltway, with its two improbable contenders, has become the sport's new fertile crescent--through Sunday, Washington led the National League East by three games, while Baltimore had only just dipped to second in the AL East, 2 1/2 games out--the cultural and geographic divide between the franchises has widened. Today's Nationals fans, whether they have resuscitated their childhood loyalty to the Senators or come newly to this club, evince as much enthusiasm for their home team as they do antipathy toward Angelos, whom they see as the greatest historical obstacle to D.C. baseball. The clubs' mutual success has deepened the fault line.
Last Friday, an hour before righthander Esteban Loaiza threw the first pitch of a 3--0 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, three thirtysomething classmates from Bullis High School in Potomac, Md., sat tailgating in one of RFK's far-flung parking lots, grilling hot dogs and burgers on a small hibachi in the steamy dusk. "I can't wait until I have kids, so I can take them here," says Kyle Blackstone, a 31-year-old attorney from Bethesda. "I always felt like a visitor in that park in Baltimore. Now I feel like this is a major league sports town."
Blackstone lounges shirtless, a beer can gripped firmly in his left hand as he speaks. "My wife got me a Nationals cap for Hanukkah, and when the stadium financing looked like it was going to fall through in December, it nearly ripped my heart out." With all three men there is a sense of great fortune to have landed a team at last, in spite of Angelos's efforts to prevent it. "I have a lot of resentment toward the Orioles now," Todd Levine, a 30-year-old salesman from Silver Spring, says from behind a pair of sunglasses as he puffs on a cigar. "A vendetta."
While the Expos shuttled for two years between a somnolent ballpark in Montreal and a substandard one in San Juan, Major League Baseball, which has owned the franchise since February 2002, believed D.C. was its soundest long-term destination; but Angelos's opposition to a competing franchise in his backyard, and the possibility of litigation to prevent it, forestalled a more immediate move. He was placated only by a generous compensation package--including an MLB-guaranteed $360 million sale price for his own franchise (twice what he paid in 1993) and a 90% stake in the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), the cable TV channel that, starting in 2007 (and pending the outcome of a lawsuit with Comcast), will carry all of the Orioles' games as well as half the Nationals' to the Washington and Baltimore markets, the nation's eighth- and 23rd-largest, respectively.
The Nationals' immediate success has vindicated the institutional belief that baseball would thrive in D.C., even if it did so at Baltimore's expense. The Nationals are drawing about 32,000 fans per game, more than 70% of RFK's capacity and 13th in the majors, a threefold increase from the paltry crowds that dappled Olympic Stadium a year ago. (Attendance at Camden Yards, by contrast, is down about 10%, to 30,700, though bad weather in the season's first two months was almost certainly a factor.) More than a million fans have already pushed through RFK's turnstiles, a threshold that the last incarnation of the Senators failed to reach even once, and the palpable energy of the crowds, the giddiness that attends this honeymoon, has energized Washington's players, accustomed as they had become to playing in libraries.
RFK, built in '61, is an anachronism. A multipurpose stadium that housed both the Senators and the Washington Redskins, it is a bowl fashioned of pockmarked concrete; its rooftop overhangs block out the surrounding landscape, and the seats in its two highest tiers, tinted Skins yellow and red, have blanched and faded from sunlight. During afternoon batting practice the field, thick with humidity rising off the grass, suggests in both look and temperature the inside of a soup tureen. Scattered white seats in the upper deck mark the landing points of outfielder Frank Howard's moon shots of a generation ago.
But once the game starts, the building's quaintness shifts to a crackle of energy; the ballpark is beginning to assume the political character of the District. On Friday, while commentators Tim Russert and James Carville sat among the groundlings behind the third base dugout, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined Nationals president Tony Tavares in a mezzanine box. "It was like going to a ball game with an extremely knowledgeable friend," Tavares says. "The President's command of information is completely up-to-date; I think he does a lot of research, reading through box scores to relax." Elsewhere the nuances that forge a stadium's identity are emerging; in the first row of section 444, which overhangs leftfield, the K PLACARDS TAPED ON THE FACADE TO MARK STRIKEOUTS ARE GREEN REPLICAS OF D.C. STREET SIGNS AND READ k st ne.
This is precisely the sort of thing that captivated MLB's imagination when it settled on D.C. as a franchise destination. It is a wealthy market whose population has doubled since the Senators left; it has a knowledgeable, baseball-starved fan base and can become a destination point not only for the monied suburban families who constitute four fifths of RFK's patrons but also for the capital's political elite, the lobbyists and contractors who will snatch up luxury boxes in the Nationals' new park, scheduled to open in 2008. "It's a whole different scale," says righthander Zach Day. "You've got the volume of people, you've got the politicians, Capitol Hill, the CEOs. You could see big things happening here."