Fans find reasons to hope

April 19, 2005|By Ellen Gamerman and Jonathan Pitts | Ellen Gamerman and Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

It's a mark of the enthusiasm some Washingtonians have for their city's new team that on game nights at the Camelot, the Nationals games on the television sets draw as many stares as the exotic dancers at the gentleman's club in downtown D.C.

The nudity-to-ballgame attention ratio? The staff swears it's 50-50.

And, in Baltimore, where baseball is not a newly revived novelty but a long-held religion, the Orioles' promising start has some fans daring to dream for the first time in years.

"I just love those guys," says Danielle Hynson, a souvenir vendor setting up shop near Camden Yards before game time yesterday. "Laugh if you want, but I have a feeling this is going to be the year -- for the Orioles, but also for all the other local sports teams."

Of course, it's a long season. But for a region whose last major victory in pro sports was the Ravens' Super Bowl win in 2000 -- and whose last winning baseball season was the Orioles' in 1997 -- the idea of victory is as intoxicating as a cold beer in the bleacher seats.

Such optimism, albeit tentative, is taking hold around the region. The Orioles finished their first sweep against the Yankees in five years and started the week as division leaders. And the Nationals finished last weekend as leaders in the National League East.

"There's a lot of enthusiasm out there," says Nick Triantis, manager of the Camelot. He notes that there has been some frustration about coverage -- no, not coverage of the dancers (they're still nude), but coverage of the Washington Nationals games on the TVs behind them. Triantis, who invested in six plasma screen TVs in time for baseball season, says high-definition games would be better, but the more grainy local coverage will do for now.

Bad reception or not, local fans are starting this season with hope.

"I'd be shocked if we didn't finish above .500, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if we won the wild card," Andrew Geasen, 25, of Annapolis said as he picked up tickets for tomorrow's O's game at the Camden Yards box office. The longtime fan -- he started following the Orioles at age 4 -- says pitching coach Ray Miller is the cause of his optimism.

"We had the second-best ERA in the league after he rejoined the team last year," Geason said, "and he wouldn't have come back if he didn't see something special in the staff. He's back, isn't he?"

Beyond baseball, the region also is basking in the excitement of basketball playoffs. At the MCI Center, huge head shots of three Washington Wizards tower over the street in anticipation of this weekend's playoffs -- the team's first since 1997.

Michael Brosgart already spent 10 times the $10 face value of a Nationals ticket for the home opener last week. And this week he shelled out $250 for two tickets to a Wizards playoff game -- an excitement he has not felt for the Wizards since basketball legend Michael Jordan wore the team's jersey. Yesterday, Brosgart embraced all local teams as his own.

"I'm ready," he says. "I've got someone to cheer for."

Meanwhile, the side of the sun-splashed Camden Yards warehouse is draped with a banner three stories high. "We're Back," it reads in orange-and-black letters below a cartoon bird wielding a Ruthian bat. The bird peers down with a deranged smile. But is it a smile of confidence or of scorn? Have the Orioles' old winning ways returned, or is it just a tease?

"We beat the Yankees, that's all the hell that matters," said Louie Forbes, 29, of Dundalk. "Now our guys know that's just another team. Bring 'em all on."

Forbes and fellow roofer Daniel Grissom, 27, of Carney spent their lunch break yesterday scooping up tickets for last night's game. Super fans that they are, they even stripped off their monogrammed work shirts to replace them with orange O's jerseys.

"Eight and four's great," Grissom said, "but I'd be happy with a .500 season."

In Washington, the novelty of the new baseball team is part of the excitement.

Nationals caps have become a de rigueur fashion statement. Even people who have not yet gotten to a game are wearing them. Still, most folks were showing faith in the team yesterday, waiting in line at places like City Sports to stock up on goods.

"The city feels different," says Deborah Meshulam, a lawyer who took her two kids to the home opener and then bought them Nationals caps yesterday. She says her 10-year-old son has been studying his pack of Nationals baseball cards and, like him, she has become fascinated with the team and the experience of a hometown ballpark. "It was wonderful to see the game," she says. "We got off the Metro and just emerged into this crowd, and it was like the whole city just converged, like the whole city was in one place at one moment."

Other shoppers, like Baltimore resident Tim Murray, left with their Nationals gear tucked discreetly into their plastic bags. "I don't have a problem rooting for both baseball teams," he says, noting pointedly that the T-shirt in his bag is for his wife anyway.

True, many Washingtonians are biding time until their first love, the Redskins, start their season. But even this hardened football town is lightening up for baseball. Some don't even mind the team's new mascot: a bald eagle that looks more like a fat chicken.

"That's what my daughter wants to see -- the mascot," says Lamont Mclauchlin, 36, a lifelong Washingtonian sitting in a city park with his shades on, taking a break from his job at the U.S. Patent and TrademarkOffice and pondering when he'll take his 10-year-old daughter to a Nationals game. "Start them at a young age and they will be fans forever."

The diehard Redskins fan says it's not too hard to come by a Nationals ticket -- and not nearly as expensive as seeing the Redskins. But first things first: He wants to get to the Wizards playoffs. This being Washington, he's already working a connection.

"I know this young lady who works at Ticketron," he says. "I'll see what she can do."

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