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After the snipers had come down from the rooftop, the bomb-sniffing dogs had finished with Livan Hernandez's blue Ferrari, the beefy Secret Service agent disguised as a ballplayer in the dugout had changed back into street clothes and the leader of the free world had taken his bulletproof vest and gone home--just down the street, mind you--the Washington Nationals became just another baseball team. Oh the happiness the players and the city derived from what a former first fan, President Warren Harding, famously called normalcy.
"It'll be nice to show up and not be strip-searched," Nationals reliever Joey Eischen said after Washington's 5-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks in last Thursday night's rollicking home opener. Then, more seriously, Eischen smiled and said, "We're home. This is home."
The marriage between the Nationals--n� Montreal Expos, who were best known in recent years for traveling (and sometimes playing) like Ringling Brothers--and Washington, best known for being first in war, first in peace and last in the league, is a match made in personal-ad heaven.
Single, thirtysomething, divorced baseball team seeks long-term relationship. Turn-ons: outdoors, financial security, cable TV. Turn-offs: small gatherings, clipping coupons, international travel.
Lovelorn Washington, already a two-time loser at the national pastime, with one winning baseball team in the past 52 years (including no franchise whatsoever for the last 34), fell hard and fast. In December the District sealed the engagement by agreeing to spend more than $500 million in public money for a ballpark that is planned to open in 2008 on what is now desolate waterfront property. Since then everyone from politicians to pundits to exurbanites have been scarfing up tickets at a rate that has the Nationals topping 2.5 million in attendance this year and outdrawing their backyard rivals, the Baltimore Orioles. The rush for tickets figures to pick up if the Nats, who were 8-4 and atop the National League East following Sunday's 7-3 win over the Diamondbacks, keep winning.
Unlike its last failure with the expansion Senators, who never attracted even one million fans in any of their 11 seasons, the District has a competitive team and the resources to be a moneyed player at the big league baccarat table. No joke, this time it's for real. Privately, Major League Baseball officials believe that the Nationals have the potential to be among the game's top 10 revenue-generating franchises within four years--bigger even than the Orioles, about 40 miles to the northeast.
"I expect both of them to be payers into the revenue-sharing system," commissioner Bud Selig said last Friday. "And that's certainly one definition of a success."
Dick Bosman, a former Senators pitcher and Orioles pitching coach, said before Thursday's pregame festivities, "Oh, yes, it can be bigger and better than Baltimore. This is the pot at the end of the rainbow."
Nine prospective ownership groups have paid $100,000 in application fees in hopes of buying the club from MLB. The franchise is expected to fetch at least triple the $120 million that the other 29 owners paid for it 38 months ago; those owners will divide the profits. Selig said he hopes to finalize a buyer "by midsummer," though he acknowledged that the sport's timetables on such matters have been infamously elastic. Indeed, general manager Jim Bowden was signed to a contract last winter that expires on April 30; MLB thought at the time that new ownership would be in place by then.
The Nationals are in demand largely because the Washington area bares little resemblance to what it was on Sept. 30, 1971. That night the last game in Senators history ended in a forfeit after hundreds of souvenir-seeking fans, knowing that owner Bob Short was moving the team to Texas, stormed the RFK Stadium field during the final inning. Since then the population of the Washington area has surged from 3.3 million to 5.9 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, ranking it fifth among Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the nation. The Washington MSA has a population twice the size of the Baltimore MSA and ranks fourth in the U.S. in per capita income. More important, only one MSA with a major league team, San Francisco, has a more affluent population base.