- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 7, 2007

If you peer into the sporting distance, forgetting all the single-digit temperatures and clock-controlled wintertime fun and games, you might catch a peek of what lies ahead on our sports scene …

Baseball.

As Lord Tennyson put it, or approximately, in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of horsehide.

Willie Shakespeare had a relevant comment, too: Perchance to dream.

Look at it this way: Washington’s pitchers and catchers report to spring training at Viera, Fla., in six days, the Nationals’ first exhibition game is in 23 days and President Bush — or a presumably smiling surrogate — will throw out the first ball at RFK Stadium in 54 days.

There now, don’t you feel warmer already?

In their two years of checkered existence, the Nats have given us all kinds of firsts (as well as a couple of lasts in the National League East). Now here’s another. Because Major League Baseball finally has come to its collective senses, this year’s opening game will be at RFK for the first time since 1971 rather than in isolated outposts like Philadelphia and New York.

If you’re not aware that it used to be traditional for Washington to open at home, don’t feel bad. Neither did Tony Tavares, the Nats’ former president under the aegis of MLB, and he has been around a few baseball blocks (and blockheads).

But on the afternoon of Monday, April 2, when the Florida Marlins show up on East Capitol Street to do battle with Our Heroes, all will seem right with the world for many of us.

To be sure, the Nats will be lousy this season. They have only one reliable starting pitcher at this point — John Patterson — and he’s coming off arm surgery. But this is a year to be patient. In 2008, the ballclub will move into its glittering new home on the Anacostia Waterfront — a proper place for stars like Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez and Chad Cordero to shine.

And trust me, with sharp baseball guys like Stan Kasten and Jim Bowden in charge, the Nats will develop pitchers the right way — through a strong farm system instead of the chancy free agent market.

Does all this sound too rosy? Well, so what — that’s what the offseason and spring are for.

I know all of baseball’s faults: endless games, greedy club owners, overpaid players, dumb management by Bud Selig and his minions. (On the latter score, consider that MLB moved the Montreal Expos to D.C. only because there was no other place to go — and only after leaving the nation’s capital without the national pastime for 33 years.)

But even so, no other sport is so entwined with our country and its folklore as baseball. If suddenly we were transported back to 1907, big-time pro basketball wouldn’t exist, and football would more resemble rugby than today’s brand. But we’d feel completely at home watching the likes of Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner ply their trade.

And if we were to wait one more year, we might even hear somebody singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Often that is the best part of baseball — its lore and legends. Even in this helter-skelter soundbite age, baseball stories, experiences and loyalties are handed down from generation to generation. And each of us has his own supply.

For instance, a recollection from half a century ago came rushing back this week when Takoma Park’s Steve Barber, the Orioles’ first 20-game winner, died at age 67. I remember a morning in August 1956 when Barber was pitching for D.C.’s Federal Storage team in the All-American Amateur Baseball tournament in Johnstown, Pa., an important sandlot event back then. After Federal Storage lost its first game in the double-elimination affair, tough-as-nails manager Joe Branzell accosted Barber at breakfast the next morning and barked, “Don’t eat too much, Steve — you’re pitching the morning game today!.”

Replied Barber, then a star at Silver Spring’s Montgomery Blair High School: “Gosh, skipper, I don’t think I can.”

“What! Why not?”

“Well, Dick Heller and I were up all night — he was teaching me to play gin rummy.”

Branzell, later a scouting supervisor for the Texas Rangers, had given me a ride to western Pennsylvania. I can’t really quote his full response here, but the most printable thing he said was something like “Goldarn it, Heller, if we lose, your royal rump is walking back to Washington!”

Fortunately, Barber pitched and won the game, Federal Storage won the tournament and I rode home. Now this close call is merely a cherished memory — and starting soon baseball will give us many, many others.

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