It’s been 10 years since the Washington Nationals were born in a nowhere place called Viera, Fla. – a manufactured town created by a family of fruit and vegetable peddlers, a name that means “faith” in Slovak.
It took a lot of faith to be a Nationals fans in those early days of spring training at Space Coast Stadium in the 321 area code – which, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is final countdown for a rocket launch.
Players showed out of nowhere. One day Dmitri Young was hanging out near the minor league complex, looking like one of the local homeless, and then suddenly he was on the roster. Bret Boone comes to camp, declaring he was making a comeback, but the brother tandem of Aaron and Bret Boone in Nationals uniforms ended quickly, as did the comeback.
And then there was the song “We Are the Washington Nationals.”
Ten years of memories, many of which seem comedic now when the team was a three-ring circus, and Jim Bowden was the ringleader.
Matt Williams would have been on the first rocket out of town if he had to manage his way through those early Nationals spring training camps.
The first spring training game the Nationals ever played will forever be known for the debut of the team song, “We are the Washington Nationals” – commissioned by the carnival barker Bowden and written by a friend name Jeff Pence of the group Blessid Union of Souls. It was a head banging tune that Bowden declared should be the official team song.
The problem was, though, Bowden hadn’t told his boss, team president Tony Tavares, about the song. The press box went nuts over it, but Tavares wasn’t a fan. That was the last time we heard, “We are the Washington Nationals.”
The game? Highly touted leadoff prospect Endy Chavez made two outs on eight pitches, and the song he heard when the regular season opened was “We are the New Orleans Zephyrs.”
The following spring was the Alfonso Soriano circus – the $10 million second baseman the Nationals traded for and then told him to pick up an outfielder’s glove. Soriano thought he was the second coming of Bobby Richardson, and was missing in action for a time at spring training, refusing to make the move. There were various reports of Soriano being spotted in all the hot spots in Viera, like Cracker Barrel. He finally showed up, they held a press conference, and when Soriano was asked if he would play left field if manager Frank Robinson told him to, Soriano replied, “Who knows?”
Spring training 2006 was pretty tense, despite the joy following Washington’s surprising 81-81 inaugural season the year before. Tavares hated Robinson, who hated Bowden, and it spilled out that spring. Robinson went off on Bowden because he couldn’t even pick his own backup catcher, so I wrote a column about the tension in Viera.
The morning it appeared in The Times, I walked in Space Coast Stadium for work, and signed in, as always, at the security desk, where the guard – a nice retired fellow – said to me, “How do you guys come up with something different to write every day?” I told him, “Sometimes we just make it up,” because that’s what people believe anyway.
A half hour later, I was leaving the building to head over to the practice field when Bowden came outside chasing after me. He screamed at me for 10 minutes, veins bulging out of his neck, claiming I fabricated some quotes in the column. After he was done, I went back in the building to call my editors in case they heard about it first from someone else. The security guard looked at me with his jaw dropped, stunned by what he had seen. I said, “See, that’s what happens when you make it up.”
By the end of the day, when Bowden discovered that what I had written was the truth, he called me and apologized.