- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

Brian Schneider will be joining friend and teammate Brad Wilkerson today for a Washington Nationals player appearance at the Health and Fitness Expo at the Washington Convention Center. Last week Schneider and Wilkerson were at Space Coast Stadium in Florida to sign autographs and help kick off the sale of spring training season tickets. And Schneider is hoping the Nationals will put together some sort of fan event in the District before pitchers and catchers report next month.

“It’s exciting to walk around town and see people wearing Nationals hats and sweatshirts,” Schneider said. “That is a big change for us — having a real fan base and people excited about the team. That is great.”

This is one of the reasons Nats fans are going to have a far better time this year than Yankees fans. Players coming to Washington want to connect with the fans, appreciate the attention and dream about what it will be like when the Nats play their home opener April14 at RFK Stadium.

Schneider, the Nats’ regular catcher, has tried to picture what it will be like on that Thursday — a frenzied, sellout crowd with the president of the United States throwing out the first pitch to him. He couldn’t fully envision that dream until he recently took a tour of RFK and saw the work taking place

“Now I can put a picture together,” Schneider said. “I am hoping I can catch that first pitch from the president — and not miss it.”

The picture Schneider has for the 2005 Nats is an optimistic one, and not just because of the excitement over the return of baseball to Washington after more than three decades. He believes the team can’t go anywhere but up after the uncertainty he and his teammates faced as the Montreal Expos for the past five years.

In previous years, the questions facing Schneider were along the lines of:

“Do you think this will be your last year in Montreal?”

“How do you think the team will cope with playing one-quarter of its home games in Puerto Rico?”

Even with those questions — and the limits placed on the roster by the club’s owners, Major League Baseball — the Expos managed to compete for two of the last three seasons (83-79 in 2002 and 2003), though a second season of traveling to Puerto Rico, the loss of Vladimir Guerrero and the lack of depth because of MLB’s restraints finally caught up with them last season, when they finished 67-95.

Schneider believes the stability of playing all their home games in one place — particularly in front of large crowds at RFK instead of the 9,000 or so who showed up at Olympic Stadium in Montreal — will help the team improve. So will the additions of third baseman Vinny Castilla, shortstop Cristian Guzman and outfielder Jose Guillen, even though the ownership issue remains unresolved.

“It will be interesting to see how the outfield turns out — we have a lot of options out there,” Schneider said. “You have Guillen and [Brad] Wilkerson out there, and it will be a heck of a competition between Endy Chavez and Terrmel Sledge for that third spot. However it turns out, it will be good depth for the team. They are both great players. And I think [first baseman] Nick Johnson will have a good year. He has way too much talent, if he is healthy, not to have a great year.”

Schneider is coming off the best season in his five-year career, hitting 12 home runs and driving in 49 runs while batting .257 in 135 games. But his real value to the Nats is behind the plate. He has emerged as one of the better defensive catchers in the National League, and his challenge this year will be to get the most out of the team’s rotation: Livan Hernandez, Esteban Loaiza and a quartet of young pitchers (Tony Armas Jr., Zach Day, Tomo Ohka and Jon Rauch) who have failed to fulfill their potential because of injuries or inconsistency.

“With Loaiza and Livan, they have been successful, and my job with them is to make them the most comfortable they can be on the mound and do anything I can to help them out,” he said. “I’ve been with Armas since 1998. We know each other real well. Ohka, we get along well. I enjoy catching him. He loves feedback, and you have to sit next to him during the game and talk about the hitters while it is going on. He is very studious about the game.”

The pitcher to watch, though — the one unknown who could be the difference between the Nats being simply entertaining and being competitive — is Day, who, after going 9-8 in his second season in 2003 struggled last year with a 5-10 mark, making just 19 starts because of right shoulder tendinitis and a broken bone in his right middle finger.

“Zach Day has a chance to be an All-Star,” Schneider said. “His sinker may be the best in the National League. He needs to learn how to be consistent. He will go out one night and deal, then the next time have trouble. But he has the potential to be a great pitcher. If he can step up and do what we know he can, it will be a huge boost for us.”

The problem for the Nats — beside operating with just a $50million payroll under the thumb of MLB — is that everyone else in the NL East has gotten better. The free agency season turned the division — the Phillies, Braves, Mets and Marlins, along with the Nats — into the most competitive in baseball.

“Our division is so good that it is hard to imagine a wild-card team coming out of it,” Schneider said. “Everyone is going to beat up on each other. It is such a competitive division, especially with all the new big names — Carlos Delgado [Marlins], Carlos Beltran [Mets], Pedro Martinez [Mets], and Al Leiter changes teams [Mets to Marlins] but stays in the division. There’s Tim Hudson [Braves], Kris Benson [Mets], and we get quality guys like Castilla and Guzman and Guillen. Everyone got better.”

Fans in New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta and South Florida are probably very excited about their teams, and their new, highly paid players are likely pleased as well. However, it’s doubtful any of those players are as thrilled about their new home — and their new fans — as Brian Schneider and his Nationals teammates, who are looking to fall in love. And, as the Beatles said, money can’t buy you love.

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