- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The snakebit Nationals hatched their new-look Screech mascot Monday at the downtown ESPN Zone and - surprise, surprise! - he (she?… it?) turned out not to be Jim Bowden.

“Too bad,” said Rick Neave, who spends the summer moonlighting as an usher at Nationals Park. “I thought it might be because, after all, Jim needs a job.”

On a day when the Nats’ brass was in Florida beginning its search for a successor to the disgraced former general manager, other club officials were making happy talk about their humanoid eagle mascot that, presumably, few fans over the age of 7 or 8 care about.

“Screech is growing up, and he’s here to show that growing up isn’t so bad,” peeped Clint Khoury, the Nats’ in-game host (whatever that is) and emcee for this hardly momentous unveiling.

If we take this silliness seriously, all is dandy with the Nats as they approach their fifth year in these long deprived baseball parts. Never mind that the club is coming off a 102-loss season, has made relatively few changes and has just seen its GM depart because of a miniscandal. What’s important is that Screech has attained whatever passes for puberty as far as eagles are concerned.

“Whoo! Whoo!” a few female onlookers chanted as the mascot introduced himself with a little jive dance. I’m pretty sure the women were employees of the Nationals because almost nobody else was there.

Given the overnight snowfall and the resulting absence of many workers from their jobs, it was hardly surprising that a mere handful of spectators stuck their beaks into the usually crowded sports bar. Khoury will never work a smaller crowd unless he someday becomes an “in-game host” in a bathroom.

On hand for the festivities, such as they were, was Slapshot, the Capitals’ own avian mascot. This oversized creature appeared to enjoy the new version of Screech more than anyone else - proving, I suppose, that birds of a feather schlock together.

Also present were the club’s Racing Presidents, whose popularity at Nats games would seem to have greatly surpassed that of Screech in previous seasons. If they had raced toward a buffet line, I’m sure Teddy would have finished last.

Now the bad news for any fans who previously clasped the sort-of-adorable original Screech to their breasts: Like a lot of humans when they mature, the adolescent version isn’t nearly as cute.

This creature is full-sized, gawky and prances about with his mouth wide open as if waiting to catch a worm - or perhaps an overcooked, overpriced hot dog. Charm is hardly his middle name - or even an alias.

Later in the afternoon, Screech was scheduled to make an appearance at Children’s Hospital, and we can only hope he didn’t frighten the bejabbers out of some younger patients. Such a confrontation could be as scary as, say, having Mike O’Connor (13.00 ERA in 2008) face Albert Pujols with the bases loaded and none out.

Before the new Screech made his long unawaited debut, a Nats official was explaining with a semistraight face that a new bird was necessary because he had enjoyed a growth spurt.

“Right,” a man said skeptically. “I suppose he’s gotten as big as Adam Dunn.”

Undaunted, the club official added, “The plan all along was to have him grow up at some point, but we just didn’t know when.”

When better than after losing 102 games? Anything to deflect attention away from the field - despite club president Stan Kasten’s outrageous optimism and manager Manny Acta’s fondest hope that tomorrow, if not today, will be better.

As the little presentation ceremony ended, Khoury reminded his miniscule audience that “individual game tickets go on sale tomorrow.” It’s doubtful that Screech’s presence will pull many customers through the turnstiles. The name of the game, it seems, is still winning games.

Heck, maybe the Nats should scrap Screech altogether and find a rabbit mascot - one Acta can pull out of a hat.

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