- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 27, 2005

When he dropped in for a bite to eat at the downtown ESPN Zone a couple of weeks ago, Esteban Loaiza wasn’t looking for any outlandishly special treatment, just the usual consideration afforded professional athletes at such places. He is, after all, a starting pitcher for the Washington Nationals and he is having a pretty good year.

“I went to talk to the manager to see if he could get me a table,” Loaiza said. “And he didn’t know who I was. I told him I was one of the players from the Nationals.”

Loaiza, who two nights later would beat Pedro Martinez and the New York Mets, said the manager responded with an “OK.” Except the way Loaiza mimicked it, it was a drawn out “Ohhhhhhhkay” that indicated a slight degree of skepticism. The restaurant is helping the fans get to know the players better by scheduling five Q&A and autograph sessions during the season. Still, Loaiza was somewhat surprised. “I can’t believe they don’t know that many of the guys,” he said.

Neither do a lot of other people. The playoff-contending Nationals might be the talk of the town, if not all of baseball, but they remain a mostly anonymous bunch in the public eye. Some, like manager Frank Robinson and outfielder Brad Wilkerson, are frequently noticed. But overall, the fans’ lack of personal familiarity stands in contrast to the manner in which the area has embraced the club.

“I get recognized more on the road than here,” Loaiza said.

Granted, it’s still early. The Nationals just got here. Yet at least for now, considering the media and political big shots — including the president — who attend the games, this is one team whose fans are more familiar than the players.

Meanwhile, up the road at the ESPN Zone in Baltimore, “it’s completely different when the Orioles visit,” said Bonnie Downing, who oversees both sites as the regional marketing director. She said Miguel Tejada, the Orioles’ All-Star shortstop, requires a security detail when he comes in because he gets swamped by fans. Even outfielder Larry Bigbie, a part-time starter, gets attention.

“The locals recognize the local players,” Downing said.

Not here. Not yet. Closer Chad Cordero had a superb first half of the season and made the All-Star team, but when he walks around Georgetown, he might as well be another tourist. He has been recognized only a few times.

“When I go out I don’t have my hat on, so nobody knows what I look like. I have the hat pulled down so low,” said Cordero, whose flat-brimmed, low-riding hat has become a trademark.

Fans seem to know Wilkerson, who probably is the Nationals’ most exposed player. Mainly, it stems from those unrelenting bank commercials that seem to air 15 times a game. Before the season, Wilkerson did a funny bit for “This Week in Baseball,” in which he went down to the Mall wearing a vintage Senators jersey and asked people if they knew who he was. Most did not.

Since then, his visibility has increased. “I’ve noticed it a little more since the bank commercial,” he said. “A lot of fans stop and say hello and introduce themselves to me.”

Robinson not only has a Hall of Fame playing career to supplement his visibility, he gets more face time than any player because of the dugout shots on television. He said he frequently gets stopped walking down the street, at the supermarket and pumping gas, and hears nothing but compliments.

That happened when he played, but this is different.

“They’re not telling me, ‘nice going’ because I got a base hit,” he said. “They’re telling me ‘nice going’ because of what the players did on the field.”

Away from the ballpark, few seem to be saying “nice going” to the rest of the Nationals. Outfielder Jose Guillen, who is having a big year and is as animated and emotional as anyone on the team, said he is occasionally recognized, but “I don’t go out that much.”

Neither does Vinny Castilla, who lives in the Virginia suburbs. Still, he has to leave the house once in a while. He’s been to the supermarket, the mall in Tyson’s Corner and other places. And?

“Nothing,” he said. He swears that not one time has someone approached him or asked, “Hey, are you Vinny Castilla?”

That wasn’t the case in Denver, where Castilla made a name for himself playing for the Colorado Rockies, or in Atlanta and Houston, where he also played. In those places, Castilla said he lived near the city’s core. “I’m not around downtown D.C.,” he said.

Castilla and his teammates aren’t on TV all that much, either. Only about half the Nationals games are televised throughout the viewing area, a byproduct of the tiff between Comcast and the Baltimore Orioles. David Cope, who heads the Nationals marketing department, said that “absolutely” has an effect.

“When you watch on television, you end up getting a much closer look at the players’ faces than you ever would at the stadium,” he said. “Television is a major player in developing what the fans feel is a personal relationship.”

Cope, who worked for the Orioles and Baltimore Ravens and the Washington Bullets, Capitals and Redskins, disagrees with those who say the team has not been fully marketed as it awaits sale from Major League Baseball. He points to placards that went up about a month ago in Metro stations and trains, and promotional TV spots featuring players such as Wilkerson and Guillen.

But Cope said marketing a baseball team does not usually focus on individuals because many are here only temporarily. “The Nationals are here permanently,” he said.

Over time, the players who stay will become more recognizable. “It does not happen overnight,” Cope said. “The building of a brand, the marketing of a team is a process. It’s been fun and productive to date, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Cope, who worked for Edward Bennett Williams with the Orioles, quoted his former boss in describing the marketing of the Nationals. “This is the end of the beginning,” he said.

So at some point, if he keeps it up, Cordero might need the same protection as Tejada. Someone might yet yell, “Hey, Vinny!” to Castilla in the produce aisle. But right now, all is quiet.

And the players don’t mind. They would just as soon play the game, live their lives and go about their business uninterrupted. Then again, a little personal, positive reinforcement can’t hurt, either. As Robinson said, “It’s nice to be loved.”

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