- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2005

OK, we know you have connections. An office overlooking the inaugural parade. Access to a private jet. A drink named after you at Zola. A booth at the Palm restaurant. Your face on the wall at the Palm.

But have you yelled “Beer man” next to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice? Have you spilled popcorn on James Carville? Have you elbowed Tim Russert during the T-shirt toss or tripped over Al Hunt’s loafers on the way to the men’s room or cut in the hot-dog line in front of Judy Woodruff?

If so, you belong to an exclusive club of baseball fans — high-priced lawyers, lobbyists, politicos and media types — who have made RFK Stadium power central during the balmy nights of late summer. The Nationals may win or lose, but it’s never a bad night behind the dugouts.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams, pundit Mark Shields and AOL emeritus Jim Kimsey all have season tickets. Guests spotted over the summer have been rocker Dave Matthews; rapper Ludacris; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; actor Kevin Sorbo; White House spokesman Scott McClellan; and athletes Art Monk, Carlton Fisk, Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Theismann and Daryl Green. Fred Malek, who is head of the Washington Baseball Club, a consortium hoping to buy the team when Major League Baseball holds an upcoming auction, has tickets two rows up behind first base.

“It gives you 81 opportunities to do this — and the seats aren’t so darn expensive that people can’t accept them as a gift. It falls within the limits,” he says.

(He is referring to the $50 limit on gifts people in government can accept.)

“People do go to be seen,” says a K Street lobbyist who often entertains out-of-town guests with seats at RFK. “Let’s face it, there are very few things like this for middle-aged guys like me to do. Washington is venue-starved.”

And if you’ve nibbled on lamb chops in D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission Chairman Mark Tuohey’s private suite, you know you’re not in Baltimore anymore, eating soggy crab cakes and dreading that hourlong ride home. (Mr. Tuohey also bought up a truckload of hot dogs and serves them to his guests. He also gives them to the team after each game.)

Washington finally has a new venue for schmoozing and deal-making, and by all accounts, the results have been formidable.

“It’s all about building relationships,” Mr. Tuohey said one humid night in his large suite, where he has entertained guests from Capitol Hill as well as Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Eddie Jordan, coach of the Wizards. “Is this a good place to do that? The answer is yes.”

Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan and his wife, TV journalist Andrea Mitchell, recently sat behind home plate as guests of journalists Al Hunt and Judy Woodruff. Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, has sat on the hard orange seats. So have White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Mary Matalin and President Bush’s political architect, Karl Rove. (Mr. Bush himself has attended two games, sitting in the President’s Box.)

Miss Rice bought her own season tickets ($40 each for 81 home games) and has a prime view in the 100 section between home and third base.

“This a town where you’re not going to put Condi Rice in Section 420,” one Nationals insider said. Multiple law firm partners at Kirkland & Ellis bought season tickets behind home plate. The scramble for season tickets — lower-deck seating was bought by every major law firm and lobbying group in town — has resulted in a sort of power grid. The higher you are, the lower you sit.

“I think it’s a casual way to catch up with people,” one lobbyist said the other night, drinking a Miller Lite and scanning for VIPs. “It’s different from going to the Capital Grille or a stuffy reception.”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has been there. So have numerous Cabinet members and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Even if the seats are hard, the $6 beers are warm and the pizza soggy. In a city where serious career people don’t leave the office until 8 p.m. and by 10 most people are home in front of the news, the late summer hours between 7:30 and 10 have suddenly become rife with deal making, schmoozing and Blackberrying between the lower sections of a once proud stadium in a rundown part of town that seems like the Turf That Time Forgot.

Conservative columnist and baseball aficionado George Will has season tickets. You also might spot columnist Robert Novak, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Sen. Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania Republican) and Rep. Michael Oxley (Ohio Republican).

Football is a rowdier game and attracts a rowdier crowd. It’s loud and ferociously violent. Baseball is ethereal — from the neck up. The only real sound is the thwack of ball into leather glove or the sudden crack when someone juices one over the wall.

Unlike hockey or basketball, baseball actually lets you talk during a game. You also can look away — for even 10 minutes — and not miss much. Which is why baseball is the perfect activity for Thomas Pink shirt-sleeved Washington men to bond over.

The Nationals have drawn nearly 1.7 million fans to RFK, and they rank 11th in attendance among the 30 Major League baseball Teams, thanks in part to the venue-starved boys of summer who finally have a ballpark in their back yard.

“It’s not the kind of place where you’re gong to have a meaningful discussion,” Mr. Malek says. “But it’s good camaraderie.”

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