Baseball fever grips capital

April 13, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - After 34 years, Major League Baseball returns to the nation's capital tomorrow night with the opening game of the new Washington Nationals against the Arizona Diamondbacks. And the scramble for status seats is on.

The Nationals will be playing for the next couple of years at the locally revered but league-reviled Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium until a new one that the city can't afford is being built. RFK, though refurbished, is disdained by National League owners because it lacks the luxury boxes that mean millions of dollars for them.

RFK, former home of the beloved football Redskins and until now a popular soccer venue among the large foreign contingent in Washington, holds about 45,000 seats. The relative paucity has generated a frenzied clamor for the best of them among politicians, lobbyists and celebrities of the bloated journalism community.

The Washington Post recently told of the sad plight of columnist Robert D. Novak, an old friend and competitor of mine, getting stuck with seats in the right-field corner of RFK. He was quoted as saying, in typical Washington derision of its neighbor to the north: "They were pretty close to Baltimore."

Lest Mr. Novak become the target of irate Baltimoreans, it must be noted that for years he has been an avid visitor to Charm City's Camden Yards to partake of the frustrations of the Orioles.

As is done all the time here, Mr. Novak pulled certain strings with powers whose identity he guarded from the Post with all the tenacity with which he has refused to identify publicly the sources of his story about the CIA agent.

But Mr. Novak was doing nothing more than hordes of other real or self-styled VIPs in working the new Nationals ballclub and various connections for good Opening Day or season seats. The problem is particularly acute because corporate interests and lobbyists have grabbed up huge chunks of the seats.

The fight for good seats has intensified the collective animosity of Washingtonians toward Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos. He never wanted the Montreal Expos to move to Washington, for fear that the absence of frequent commuters to Camden Yards would put a hole the size of a baseball in his wallet.

Mr. Angelos became the target of even greater Washington anger when, as owner of television rights in the Baltimore-Washington area, he limited the number of Nationals games on the air, depriving Washington-area fans of seeing the team's first two victories over the Phillies in Philadelphia.

All this turmoil might be counted on to fuel a rivalry between the Nationals and the Orioles, though frustrated by the fact that Washington is playing in the National League. Although inter- league games are in fashion, the Nats and O's don't face each other in a regular season game this year.

Unlike Mr. Novak, I've been indifferent to baseball ever since the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and the Washington Senators were twice shot out from under me with escapes to Minnesota and then Texas. With the Washington Wizards, the pro basketball franchise that once was the Baltimore Bullets, headed for the NBA playoffs for the first time in eight years, who cares who sits where at RFK?

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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