- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

They restarted season-ticket sales. They reopened the official team store. They even re-signed one of their key players, catcher Brian Schneider.

The Washington Nationals were back in business yesterday and trying to make up for time lost during their week in flux.

It was no easy task. Team president Tony Tavares, who on orders from Major League Baseball shut down all business and marketing operations Dec.15, was charged yesterday with getting the relocated franchise back up and running.

“Actually, things are going better than I thought they would,” Tavares said. “That’s the good news. I think everything is back on line.”

Plenty of people stood in line for Nationals merchandise at the team’s store. With only a couple of shopping days left until Christmas, a horde of fans made their way to the temporary trailer set up in the RFK Stadium parking lot to purchase caps, T-shirts and the home and away jerseys that finally were unveiled yesterday.

At one point in early afternoon, the line stretched about 50 yards out the front door, with some patrons waiting more than an hour to get in.

The club also re-opened its online store and again started taking $300 deposits on season tickets through its Web site (nationals.com) and over the phone. The Nationals had sold full-season plans to 16,400 people when they closed shop last week, and though 563 of those requested refunds over the last seven days, the club is giving them the option of canceling their refunds and retaining their places on the seating priority list.

“It wasn’t their fault,” Tavares said. “We didn’t want to penalize them just because they asked for their money back when things looked bad.”

Tavares and his skeleton crew of employees have a laundry list of tasks that must be completed before the April4 season opener in Philadelphia, and the loss of one work week didn’t help.

Among pressing issues that must be resolved in the coming weeks are the completion of television and radio broadcasting deals, more than $18.4million of renovations to RFK, creating marketing agreements with several major sponsors, hiring stadium operations personnel, arranging team travel plans and assisting MLB with the eventual sale of the franchise.

“There’s a whole litany of things that have to get done before Opening Day,” Tavares said.

Though the Nationals’ baseball operations never officially shut down, interim general manager Jim Bowden was essentially hamstrung to make major roster moves. He did manage to sign two of his arbitration-eligible players to one-year contracts before Monday night’s nontender deadline, relief pitchers Joey Eischen and T.J. Tucker, and yesterday did the same with Schneider, his regular catcher.

Schneider, who was eligible for arbitration for the first time in his career, signed a one-year deal worth $2million. He made $350,000 last year, his first as a regular.

The 28-year-old has developed into one of the game’s better young catchers. He threw out 47.8 percent of base-stealers last season, tops in the major leagues, while setting career highs in home runs (12) and RBI (49).

Schneider, who figures to bat seventh in manager Frank Robinson’s lineup, holds a .252 career batting average over parts of five seasons, all with the Montreal Expos.

Yesterday’s signing leaves the Nationals with four remaining arbitration-eligible players: outfielder Brad Wilkerson, first baseman Nick Johnson and pitchers Tony Armas Jr. and Tomo Ohka. Bowden is continuing talks with their representatives and has until February to work out deals before they go to arbitration.

Yesterday’s reopening of business also allows Bowden to pursue any trade talks and free-agent negotiations put on hold during the hiatus. Bowden still believes he has a chance to sign Dodgers left-hander Odalis Perez, who sources said would prefer to play for Washington over the other clubs courting him.

The Nationals have offered Perez, who went 7-6 with a 3.25 ERA over 31 starts last year, a three-year deal worth about $18million, but it’s believed Perez has received better offers.

Bowden is about $6million under his mandated $50million budget, and though some have speculated he could be given the green light to spend more money, that doesn’t look likely.

“As of right now, [the $50 million payroll] is hard and fast,” Tavares said. “But within that number, based on the deals we’ve already negotiated, we’ve still got a little bit of room to work with.”

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