Nationals at home with start of camp

Uncertainty that tracked Expos past few years gone with move to Washington


February 18, 2005|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

VIERA, Fla. - In the middle of his team's first spring workout, Washington Nationals manager Frank Robinson stopped to sign an autograph for a young fan, much to the delight of the kid's proud father.

"Son," the man said, "you're looking at one of the greatest third basemen of all time."

Maybe on a hot August afternoon in fourth place, one of baseball's greatest all-time outfielders might have gotten testy, but it was the first official day of camp with a newly relocated team, and Robinson seemed to be having the time of his life.

"You must be thinking of my brother Brooks," he replied.

This should probably be viewed as progress for the former Montreal Expos, who were knee-deep in their own identity crisis a couple of months ago. They took the field wearing bright red practice uniforms emblazoned with a large DC on the jerseys and hats ... a new look that signals a new era of baseball in the Baltimore-Washington area.

"We're basically the same team," Robinson said, "but we know that there is a different excitement, a different feeling. It's an exciting time."

It has been 34 years since the second incarnation of the Washington Senators abandoned the District to become the Texas Rangers, and right up until the relocation deal was finalized in December, there was room to wonder if it would be 34 more years before a major league franchise returned to the nation's capital.

Hitting coach Tom McCraw can only marvel at the circumstances that have brought him full circle - back to the stadium where he played for the Senators in that last season in Washington and also in the same capacity he served under Robinson with the Orioles from 1989 to 1991.

"It's probably a little different for me because I was on that club that left," McCraw said, "and now being on the team that comes back. It's a nice feeling, but it never crossed my mind [that it might happen]. The thought that I would ever be coming back ... you would have had to be a crazy man to think that."

There are a few other faces that should be familiar to Orioles fans. Robinson added Don Buford to the coaching staff, and former Orioles utilityman Jack Voigt will be the team's eye in the sky during the regular season. The organization also has a large Cincinnati Reds presence, with former Reds manager Bob Boone and ex-Reds stars Jose Rijo and Barry Larkin working under general manager Jim Bowden.

The prevailing emotion in the clubhouse is relief. The era of uncertainty is over, and the Nationals will play a normal home and road schedule for the first time since the 2002 season.

Each of the past two years, they have played 22 "home" games in Puerto Rico while waiting to see if Major League Baseball would actually put them in a more stable situation.

"It's just one less thing you have to worry about," said veteran catcher Brian Schneider. "You only have to have one home and the families can get comfortable in one place. We were moving our families around so that you could get as much time with them as possible."

Robinson said yesterday that the uneven home schedule and the fact that the Expos played in the only remaining covered stadium in the National League was making it tougher and tougher for the team to be competitive in the NL East.

"This will put us in a better frame of mind," he said. "We've been a very bad road team the last few years. I think it had to do with playing inside at home and then having to go out into the elements."

The Nationals will have to wait a few years to move into their new ballpark on the Anacostia waterfront, but even outmoded RFK Stadium looks pretty good after what the Expos have gone through during Major League Baseball's attempt to find a new home and a new owner for the vagabond franchise.

"For me, the regular schedule part of it is what makes me happiest," said relief pitcher Joey Eischen. "We had to play 22 more road games than anybody else. It was getting hard to compete under those circumstances. I think everybody is going to be real excited about the prospects of playing in front of a packed house, playing in front of people who want to see you play."

Don't say that in front of Canadian tourist Peter Wolters, an accountant from New Brunswick who was one of a modest crowd of fans that showed up to watch the pitchers and catchers go through early drills on the practice fields around Space Coast Stadium. The long-time fan is so loyal that he said he will continue to follow the team from afar.

"I think so," he said. "The players are pretty much the same. I hear they are going to have a pretty good following in D.C."

This obviously is not a good time to be a sports fan north of the border. The Expos moved out of the country and the NHL season has been wiped out by a labor dispute, putting six teams temporarily out of business.

"Yeah," Wolters said, "our Saturday nights are pretty much open."

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