- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

OK, I was shouting from the RFK Stadium rafters after all. I confess that my columnist’s curiosity got the better of me and an eleventh-hour opportunity presented itself so I could attend Washington’s first home baseball game in 34 years.

I had contacted Frazier O’Leary, coach of the Cardozo High School baseball team, to find out whether his players’ promised tickets for the Washington Nationals home opener were delivered. To my surprise, he invited me to accompany them to the game. He had an extra $7 ticket and could use an extra set of adult eyes to help chaperon.

Never one to pass up a freebie and a chance to hang with the fellas, off I went. I parked my convertible at Union Station and caught a cab that dropped me off at RFK Stadium’s front stoop. The return trip on the No. 92 Metrobus, which passed all the waiting, shining black limousines lining East Capitol Street, cost me $1.25.

Huffing and puffing all the way around the stadium as I climbed to the upper deck, I finally reached Section 545, Row 14, Seat 17, which is in the very last tier behind the scoreboard. In the noisy nosebleed section, I laughed, joked and eventually cheered, caught up in the momentous occasion among hundreds of high school teachers, coaches and students, including smiling Cardozo pitcher Jose Lugo, first baseman Yusef Kendall and catcher and captain Brandon Swanson.

When the Nationals took the lead on a two-run homer in the sixth inning, I jumped up with the boys to shake my booty to the “Oops, there it is” rap song. The students, who had been attempting since the previous inning to get a good “wave” going using the blow-up sticks from their fan packs, went wild.

“I like the music,” said the personable Jose. He was motivated to pitch a shutout the next time he takes to the recreational field mound.

“They gave me a heads-up about going to college to play,” said Brandon, who was bolstered to seek a college baseball scholarship.

Even the soft-spoken Yusef, who hopes to become an electronics engineer, eventually smiled in affirmation when prodded about being inspired by the opening game.

“It was a neat experience; they can’t wait to go back,” Coach O’Leary said. Jose, Yusef and Brandon are hoping they will get to play their rivals, Wilson High School, at RFK Stadium during the city championship. Everyone knows the benefits of offering organized team sports to impressionable youngsters as soon as possible, but most D.C. schools and recreation centers do not have adequate playing fields, if they have facilities at all.

Of course, before I set foot in RFK Stadium, I stopped to talk to opponents of the city’s baseball expenditures, including Liz Davis, a teacher at Sousa Junior High School and union representative, who had several students in tow, one who described the ceiling falling in his classroom.

Seeking better books and bathrooms was part of the D.C. Public Schools’ Full Funding Campaign, whose members passed out bags of roasted peanuts with an attached flier denouncing “$Millions for Stadiums … Peanuts for Schools.”

“It’s time for the leadership of the District and also in the Congress to step up to the plate and go to bat for schools,” read the yellow paper. “As we welcome the Nationals to Washington, we wonder how our city can run a budget surplus and also find the millions to publicly finance a new baseball stadium, while at the same time tell our kids funding for our school facilities needs to be cut.”

While inside the stadium, I couldn’t help feeling as though I’d been transported outside the Beltway. I waded through a sea of suburbanites sitting in the stands and standing in long food lines, long concession lines and long ATM lines and wondered how they would feel if their children were so lacking in the basic amenities as D.C students are.

But, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody booing baseball in this crazed commuter crowd, because most of them don’t have to ante up a dime in tax dollars for the extravaganzas.

Too bad all those fanatic Beltway baseball fans who cheered for Mayor Anthony A. Williams can’t vote for him. D.C. residents can only hope that their Maryland and Virginia neighbors keep coming into the city and forking over their fun money, as they should, to fund the stadium planned for the Southeast Anacostia Waterfront.

No doubt, it was a historic and hysterical opening night for the Washington Nationals and fans as the District took center stage in the region and won the game to boot.

Still, I must beg the $600 million question: Will the pie-in-the-sky economic benefits promised by baseball’s return to the District be realized, and if so, will those benefits be equalized so that people in every city neighborhood get jobs, minority business contracts and recreational resources? After the fun of this special night subsides, the mayor and baseball billionaires and backers must guarantee that the District’s children, especially its athletes, like Jose, Yusef and Brandon, get more than a $7 seat way above the scoreboard.

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