- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — The red jerseys and blue caps had an interlocking “DC” logo on them. The players wearing them were real, live major leaguers. And the setting was pure spring training: lush, green fields beneath a gorgeous blue Florida sky.

It took place 900 miles away, but baseball might as well have been back in Washington officially yesterday.

For the first time in 34 years, a Major League Baseball team representing the District was in uniform and on the field. Pitchers and catchers from the Washington Nationals spent three hours playing catch, taking batting practice and working on the dozens of fundamental drills that have been spring training staples for decades.

About 100 fans, most of them Viera locals, watched the historic practice at Carl Barger Complex, adjacent to the Nationals’ spring home at Space Coast Stadium.

“I’ve got the uniform on, I’ve got the shoes on, I get to walk on the grass onto the field,” manager Frank Robinson said. “This is it.”

Indeed, while the first day of spring workouts is typically nothing more than a formality for ballclubs, this was something special. Washington has not had a team of its own since the Senators left for Texas after the 1971 season, so there was a palpable air of excitement around yesterday’s proceedings.

“You’ve got the first-day excitement, the exuberance of everyone back together running around doing what we do. … It’s just really fun to be back out here,” said left-handed reliever Joey Eischen, who spent the past four seasons pitching in front of sparse crowds in Montreal for the Expos. “Everyone is real excited about the prospects of playing [in Washington] in front of a packed house of people who want to see you play.”

The excitement of something fresh and new aside, yesterday’s workout was filled with some pretty mundane activities. Players divided into groups and rotated among four different practice fields, each emphasizing a different fundamental.

On one field, pitchers ran the time-honored drill of covering first base on a ground ball to the right side. On another, the handful of position players who have reported early took batting practice. In an oversized bullpen, six different pitchers threw off a mound simultaneously, the sound of baseballs pounding into six catchers’ mitts audible throughout the complex.

And in a tiny, half-size field tucked away in a corner, coaches went over the proper technique for leading off first base.

Mundane? Yes. Important skills to master? Without a doubt.

“It’s the little things that win you games,” right hander Zach Day said, “so that’s what we’re doing, over and over and over again.”

Robinson preached those fundamentals during a morning meeting with his players. The former Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles outfielder and member of the Baseball Hall of Fame understands that his club ” with a limited $50 million budget ” has to do all those little things right if it wants to survive in the highly competitive National League East.

“If we can play good, solid, fundamental baseball, I think we’ll have a chance to contend this year,” said Robinson, whose Expos team went a disappointing 67-95 last season. “I’m not saying we are a contender. I’m saying compete on a daily basis with any team in this league.”

The fans who came out to watch yesterday’s workout were a mixed bunch. Most simply wanted a chance to watch major leaguers up close and personal and collect autographs. A handful wore red Nationals caps, but you were hard-pressed to find any actual Washingtonians who made the trip.

There were, however, some Canadian fans in attendance, including a few wearing their old Expos gear and not wanting to let go of their relocated team.

Peter and Fran Wolters, a couple from New Brunswick, just happened to be on vacation in the area and read in the local paper that the workouts were open to the public. Although they called themselves longtime Expos fans, they didn’t seem too upset about the loss of their club.

Asked whether life will be that different without baseball in Montreal, Mr. Wolters said: “Well, your Saturday nights are pretty much open now.”

Fans will have plenty of opportunities to get to know the new-look Nationals this spring. Pitchers and catchers will continue to work out daily until Tuesday, when the rest of the squad officially joins them. The first of Washington’s 33 exhibition games in Florida takes place March 2 against the New York Mets at Space Coast Stadium. The club also plays the Mets at RFK Stadium on April 3 in a final tuneup before the next day’s season opener in Philadelphia.

That’s more than six weeks’ worth of fielding drills, batting practice and exhibition games still to come. At the end of all that, Robinson just hopes that his players are all still in one piece and ready to begin the 162-game marathon of a major league season.

“No serious injuries, come out of here with a healthy 25 players, with a decent spring record,” the manager said. “That’s it ” that would be a good spring.”

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