More optimistic than freshman congressmen, the Nationals are ecstatic to be in the nation's capital. Of course, like the old joke--and Major League Baseball's smarmy handling of the Expos had become an old joke--these nomads are happy to be able to call one place home. If the playing field isn't yet entirely level for a team still without an independent owner, at least the Nationals will no longer play 59 games in front of mostly empty seats in Montreal and take refuge for 21 games in Puerto Rico. The only serious traveling the team will do is on an extended honeymoon, which began last September with the announcement of the return of big league baseball to a city that had lost two franchises; the romance surely will continue through the opening of a new stadium, scheduled for 2008.
Starved for baseball since the Senators bolted to Texas in 1971--that team was the last to relocate before the Expos--Washingtonians at week's end had already purchased more than 1.85 million tickets for 2005. Suddenly, the Nationals are on the verge of becoming a big-market player. "It's amazing how we've come from not being allowed to make a September call-up," says outfielder Brad Wilkerson of MLB's decision in 2003 that effectively scuttled Montreal's slim chances to win the NL East, "to playing in front of 30,000 every night."
"This team is heading to a championship, and the story line is phenomenal," says caretaker general manager Jim Bowden. "We're the only team in baseball getting a new city, we've got [more than] 20,000 full-season tickets sold, and we'll have a new owner by the end of the year. This is going to take three to five years, but with new ownership and a new stadium, this is the formula that will end the Braves' reign [in the division]."
Obviously the future is cheerier than the present. The farm system has been pillaged in trades that gave the big league team a false air of competitiveness. This year MLB bumped the team's payroll from $38 million to $50 million, giving Bowden seed money to start scouting again. More publicly he used the additional capital to go on a mini trading-and-spending spree that netted three regulars--third baseman Vinny Castilla, outfielder Jose Guillen and shortstop Cristian Guzman--and righthanded starter Esteban Loaiza. "We spent a boatload of money and brought in one of the best third basemen in the game, a Gold Glove [caliber] shortstop, a quality starter and a five-tool player in Guillen," reliever Joey Eischen says. "For us, we were kind of like the Yankees in the off-season."
Of course the Nationals' acquisitions are smaller units, all with noticeable warts: Castilla turns 38 in July and is the ultimate Coors Field creation (the lifetime .332 hitter in Denver batted 103 points lower on the road than he did at home for the Rockies last year); Guzman is a top-of-the-order hitter with serious on-base issues (a .309 percentage in 2004); Loaiza failed miserably during his second-half stint with the real Yankees (1--2, 8.50 ERA); and the Angels effectively fired Guillen for misbehavior before the playoffs, despite his having 104 RBIs in 148 games.
But Washington also has a crop of middling-to-good twentysomething talent, including 23-year-old closer Chad Cordero, who should bloom once manager Frank Robinson entrusts him with the role full time. There is also a smattering of dependable veterans, such as All-Star second baseman Jose Vidro, back from knee surgery, and the leading inning-eater in the bigs in 2004, righthander Livan Hernandez, who threw 255 innings and had nine complete games, also a major league high. The trouble is, there just isn't enough talent to compete against the four stacked clubs in the NL East. Still in keeping with the giddy mood established by Bowden, catcher Brian Schneider insists that 90 wins and a division title are not beyond the Nats. In D.C. this was once described as "irrational exuberance."
Washington might not score much-- Montreal ranked 14th in the league in runs scored last season--but for the first time in years this organization will be safe at home. --M.F.
In 2004 Brad Wilkerson became the first player in franchise history to hit 30 home runs, score 100 runs and draw 100 walks.