K, as in K Street

April 23, 2005|By WILL ENGLUND

IT'S A GORGEOUS spring afternoon at Farragut Square, and the old admiral who damned the torpedoes at Mobile Bay is heroically keeping watch on the lobbyists and climbers and special pleaders and experts on arcane topics and button-holers and elbow-grabbers and gofers of all descriptions who have arrived from the four corners of the continent and now pour back and forth along the avenues of influence in the nation's capital. Back in the Civil War days, David Farragut wasn't shy about sailing into enemy territory - especially because it used to be and by rights should still have been our territory - and so what better location could there be for the little shop that still beckons to Washingtonian passers-by with the black and orange banner and familiar bird of Baltimore?

A year ago, the Orioles store on K Street was a branch office for the home team. (It's actually around the corner on 17th Street, with a perfect view of the admiral in bronze, telescope in hand and left foot disdainfully resting on the top of a piling.) Now it's an outpost in the heart of another team's city. Undaunted, but terribly alone.

The first thing you notice when you walk in is a very un-Camden-Yards-like silence. No rock riffs from the 1980s. No bugle calls. No John Denver. If you wanted to have a whispered conversation in Washington and thought there might be too much racket in the reading room of the Library of Congress, then the Orioles store is your place.

The clerks, dutiful Orioles employees, refuse to give their names or say much of anything except that business is as brisk as ever. Could be. They sell a dozen different types of Orioles caps, T-shirts, sweatshirts, miniature bats, baseballs, authenticated photos of Earl Weaver, baby bottles and diaper pads for anxious parents who want to pound in team loyalty at an early age.

Does anybody ever come in looking for Nationals' paraphernalia? That's like wondering if anyone ever wanders into McDonalds and orders a Whopper - of course they do. Does the store have any for sale? Not in this lifetime. In fact, there's only one item on display that's connected to another team: a light blue Montreal Expos cap, marked down from $15 to $9. That's a pretty good dig at the Nationals, if it's intentional, but Anonymous Clerk No. 1 swears they're just trying to unload out-of-date stock, presumably to nostalgic Canadians.

The serenity is broken by a Japanese tourist asking for a train timetable to Baltimore; he goes away happy, if unburdened by a purchase. There follows J. Michael Corbin Jr., a 38-year-old Russia specialist with the Department of Commerce, who when he's not pondering the rule of law in Moscow must try to figure out how to make sure his kids grow up Orioles fans in Rockville. His 4-year-old son, Nicholas, is on the right track, having recently decided that the oriole - the feathered kind, that is - is his favorite bird. Mr. Corbin is hoping a couple of sturdy plastic cups will seal the deal.

Young Nicholas' father grew up in Hampden ("well, Medfield, really") in a family that stuck by the O's but swore by the Colts. Now he's surrounded by newly minted Nats fans, who seem to think that just having a team is enough. "It doesn't matter whether they win or lose," he says, and rolls his eyes.

So, just how hard was it to make the move from his gritty hometown to Montgomery County? Mr. Corbin sighs. "If you're a Russia expert," he says, "there aren't many jobs in Baltimore."

Back out on Farragut Square, the admiral's still keeping a weather eye out, while experts of every stripe go by. But if there's euphoria over baseball's return to the capital, you'd be hard-pressed to find any evidence of it among the well-clothed pedestrians powering by. A short ride on the subway, though, takes you to Union Station, and here, at last, is a place just bursting with baseball fans - Red Sox fans, that is, scrambling onto trains to get to the game in Baltimore.

- Will Englund

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