- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

VIERA, Fla. ” T.J. Tucker looked lost.

Tucker, the first Washington Nationals player to walk into the home clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium yesterday morning, immediately should have felt at home. This is, after all, the same spring training complex he reported to the last two years as a member of the Montreal Expos.

This isn’t, however, the same team. All it took was one look around the room, filled with bright red Nationals practice jerseys and caps, for Tucker to realize that.

The right-handed reliever was not alone in his shock. Nearly every pitcher and catcher who reported to spring training yesterday expressed the same surprise upon walking through the front door.

“It was kind of weird,” said second baseman Jose Vidro, one of six position players who reported early. “I walked in here and saw all new kinds of colors.”

These are unusual times for the former Expos-turned-Nationals, and that’s saying something given everything this team has been through the last four years.

But these are also good times for Vidro and Tucker, two of the organization’s longest-tenured players. After years of neglect and uncertainty, these guys finally have some stability in their lives.

Said Tucker: “We’ve got a home now.”

That’s more than could be said a year ago, when the Expos reported for spring training unsure what the future held in store for them. They knew they would have 59 home games in Montreal and 22 “home” games in San Juan, but they didn’t know where the franchise would be based in 2005.

Las Vegas? Portland? An empty lot next to Dulles International Airport?

“Every year when we’d come to spring training there were all kinds of questions: Are we going to be here? Are we going to do this? Are we going to do that?” outfielder Brad Wilkerson recalled. “Now, it’s just going out there and playing baseball. That’s what you sign up to do here, play pro baseball, not worry about where we’re going to be and how much we’re going to travel. Now we can just worry about our jobs.”

It was difficult for the former Expos to keep their minds solely on baseball the last two seasons while they shuttled back and forth between Canada and Puerto Rico, but the players won the admiration and respect of plenty around the sport for the way they handled their predicament. They remained in the National League wild-card race well into September in 2003 and wound up finishing 83-79.

The club was careful never to use its dual citizenship as an excuse for its play on the field.

“For what we went through, I think we did a good job with it,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We were very competitive for a couple of years.”

But all the extra travel eventually caught up to them. The Expos were 28-31 at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium last year and 7-14 at San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Before the All-Star break, when they had three homestands in Puerto Rico, they posted a 31-56 record. After the break, when all their home games were in Montreal, they went a respectable 38-39.

“No team in major league baseball has ever had to go through that,” Wilkerson said. “It was very tough on us, physically and mentally. To say we were going to compete throughout the whole season was very tough.”

While this franchise remains in a transition phase, owned by Major League Baseball and restricted to a $50 million budget that is among the smallest in the game, the Nationals are happy just to have some semblance of stability this spring.

“We have an even playing field now,” manager Frank Robinson said. “We have a permanent home. We have a fan base that will be supporting us and a schedule that will be the same as everyone else’s. … I like what’s been done with this ballclub. Now, if we can just come out of spring training healthy, I think we’ll be able to compete and hold our own.”

Robinson will spend the next seven weeks whipping his troops into shape. Pitchers and catchers are expected to take physicals today, then they will all be in uniform and on the field tomorrow for the first official workout.

Some of those already in camp couldn’t wait that long and made their way into the outfield yesterday to play a little catch.

For those few moments, these felt like old times. It didn’t matter what color shirt they were wearing or what city they were representing.

For the next seven weeks, the Nationals can just focus on baseball, preparing themselves for the excitement that awaits them back in Washington.

“It probably won’t hit me until we get there for Opening Day and see those people in the ballpark and then to come back the next day and see just as many people in the ballpark the next night,” Wilkerson said. “Anybody can sell tickets to Opening Day, but the second night is probably going to be just as many. We’re used to it tapering off pretty good the second night.”

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