- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 3, 2005

Zach Day didn’t know much about the District when he arrived in town on Monday with wife Megan. But it didn’t take long for the Washington Nationals pitcher to realize just how excited the area is about the return of baseball.

“This town’s alive,” said Day, one of four Nationals players introduced to local press and fans yesterday. “It’s going to be an exciting time for us.”

Day and the teammates who joined him at the ESPN Zone — outfielder Jose Guillen, shortstop Cristian Guzman and relief pitcher Chad Cordero — were pleasantly surprised by the baseball fever sweeping through town after three years of confusion about the future of the former Montreal Expos franchise.

“That one week where they stopped everything, I was like, ‘Holy cow, what’s going on? Where are we going to be next year?’” said Cordero, referring to the Nationals’ temporary December shutdown while the ballpark-financing bill was being debated by the D.C. Council. “Now we know we’ll have a natural home.”

Yesterday’s lunchtime event gave the Nationals a chance to officially unveil their uniforms after the original debut was postponed because of the business shutdown. The four players modeled the new-look garb: Guillen and Guzman wearing the club’s white home uniforms and red caps, Day and Cordero showing off the gray road uniforms and blue caps.

The jerseys and caps have been on sale to the public for nearly two months, and many of the 200 or so fans who lined up outside the downtown restaurant seeking autographs were decked out in team apparel.

The strong turnout on a weekday afternoon was further evidence of the city’s growing excitement about the return of major league baseball after a 33-year hiatus. About 18,000 full-season tickets have been sold, and club officials plan to begin selling partial-season ticket packages next week. Single-game tickets should go on sale in early March.

“In the long run, what we all know about a good baseball town is, if you win, they will come,” said Nationals interim General Manager Jim Bowden. “This is a team that can be built pretty quick to win.”

Mr. Bowden has done his best this winter to turn the 2004 Montreal Expos, who finished last in the National League East, into a winner in their first season in Washington. Since being hired Nov. 2, Mr. Bowden has signed or traded for seven key players (Guillen, Guzman, third baseman Vinny Castilla, pitchers Esteban Loaiza and Antonio Osuna and substitutes Wil Cordero and Gary Bennett).

He did all that while staying under the strict $50million budget assigned to him by Major League Baseball, which still owns the club, and Nationals President Tony Tavares. That relatively small figure prevented Mr. Bowden from signing bigger-name free agents like pitchers Odalis Perez and Jaret Wright and from showing more than a passing interest in superstar slugger Sammy Sosa, who yesterday officially joined the Baltimore Orioles.

Still, Mr. Bowden believes that he has helped build a competitive club.

“You know, with a $50million budget, we knew we couldn’t afford guys who made $15million a year,” he said. “So we concentrated on guys we could afford that could fill our holes, and I think we did that.”

Chad Cordero, who is not related to Wil and is one of about two dozen returning players from the Expos, was impressed with the club’s ability to overhaul its roster after years of being hamstrung in Montreal.

“It felt like every time I’d turn on ESPN, I’d see something scroll across the bottom line about us signing another player,” Chad Cordero said. “It was weird, but it was definitely cool to be able to see that we’re going out and getting all those guys.”

Their roster now remade, the Nationals finally can turn their attention to the field. Pitchers and catchers will report to spring training headquarters in Viera, Fla., on Feb.15, with the rest of the squad joining them five days later.

The club will spend the next six weeks preparing for its April4 season opener at Philadelphia, hoping the offseason makeover leads to a better record. The home opener at RFK Stadium will be April14 against Arizona — the first major league game in Washington since the expansion Senators’ forfeited their finale on Sept.30, 1971.

“I think we’re improved,” Mr. Tavares said. “I think the entire [NL East has] improved, but if you talk to Jim [Bowden] or to any of the players, you’ll see we’re not frightened about that. We think we’ll play with anybody in the division. We’ll be highly competitive.”

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