Dawn of a new day for ex-Expos in D.C.

Washington: After a long and winding road, Frank Robinson's players say there's no place like a new home.

Washington Nationals

April 03, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

VIERA, Fla. - Frank Robinson clasps his hands behind his head, leans back on his desk chair and begins telling reporters about the progress of a relief pitcher when he's interrupted by laughter.

In the room connecting to Robinson's spring training office, the Washington Nationals' coaching staff is yukking it up, carrying on so loudly that it can be heard through the closed door.

"You'd think they won the pennant in there," Robinson says with half a smile. "See what a change in uniforms can do to you?"

It's a joke that resonates with those who have spent some time around Robinson this spring.

As much as the Hall of Fame slugger and Nationals manager has tired of the issue, it won't go away. Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News have featured it. Newsweek and Time have set up interviews with Robinson to discuss it.

Next to performance-enhancing drugs and congressional hearings, no topic has been exhausted more this spring than the change of address and change of uniforms for Robinson and his players, the nomadic squad formerly known as the Montreal Expos.

After three years as a ward of baseball, which included 43 "home" games in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the past two seasons, the team has officially moved to the nation's capital, where it will play at renovated Robert F. Kennedy Stadium for at least three seasons.

"It certainly is going to be more exciting," said Robinson, a former Orioles star and manager who became the Expos' manager in 2002, when Major League Baseball took over the team. "We're looking forward to it. It's not just me; it's the players also."

Nationals catcher Brian Schneider had spent all five of his major league seasons in Montreal, where the fan base dwindled from sporadic to embarrassing by the time baseball eventually pulled the plug.

The lack of support was tough to take, Schneider said.

"When you go into other cities - you go into Philly, you go into Atlanta - you see these guys with a full house every night," Schneider said. "As a visitor, you know what it is like when we screw up or when the other team does something good and how much louder it gets. The crowd can get you a little more pumped up for the game or keep the momentum going for you.

"We haven't had that, and it is going to be a good change for us."

Robinson vividly remembers a turning point in his traveling Expos odyssey: June 12, 2003.

The Expos were in second place in the National League East, had won six in a row and were playing an interleague series finale against the Mariners in Seattle. The Expos had won the first two games, even after an exhausting flight from Puerto Rico to Seattle on their open date.

In the middle of a tight, low-scoring contest on the third day after the flight, Robinson surveyed his troops and then turned to his bench coach.

"I said, `The air has gone out.' You could just see it. You could feel it," Robinson said.

The Expos lost that game, 1-0, and then dropped seven of their next nine.

"You could see the [travel] starting to take its toll on the players," Robinson said. "And we didn't recover."

The Expos finished fourth that season, despite winning 83 games - the same number they won in 2002 when they placed second. Last year, the lame-duck Expos finished last in the division with a 67-95 record and had the second-worst home record (35-45) in the league.

This offseason, new general manager Jim Bowden signed free-agent shortstop Cristian Guzman and third baseman Vinny Castilla and traded for talented but volatile outfielder Jose Guillen.

They'll join an offense that includes three-time All Star second baseman Jose Vidro and left fielder Brad Wilkerson, who hit 32 homers in 2004.

Workhorse Livan Hernandez, one of baseball's most durable pitchers, leads the starting rotation. Behind him, however, the Nationals have enigmatic right-hander Esteban Loaiza, injured Tony Armas and three other starters coming off injury-shortened seasons: Zach Day, Tomo Ohka and John Patterson.

At least the pitchers aren't too concerned about playing at RFK Stadium, which hasn't hosted a regular-season baseball game since the Washington Senators left for Texas after the 1971 season.

Robinson said RFK won't be much different from what it was when he visited there with the Orioles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"If you don't make your pitches, it's going to hurt you. If you make your pitches, you are going to get hitters out," Robinson said. "It's a good ballpark. It's a fair ballpark."

Robinson, who turns 70 in August, hasn't talked much to his players about his own experiences at RFK. If he did, though, they would listen.

"He knows a lot," said closer Chad Cordero, 23, who anchors a strong bullpen. "He has confidence in guys, too, whether it's a young guy coming up or an older guy. ... He'll stick with them. That helps a player a lot. It helps you try that much harder."

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