- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Thom Loverro has embarked on a two-week road trip to report on the minor league affiliates of the Washington Nationals and stops in between.

WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Art Silber’s minor league team has been affiliated with more organizations than the Washington Redskins have had coaches under owner Dan Snyder.

The club formerly known as the Prince William Cannons — and, more recently, the Potomac Cannons — has been affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds since Silber bought it 16 years ago.

So it is no surprise Silber was eager to join with the Washington Nationals and ride the wave of interest caused by the return of major league baseball to the area — and perhaps at last find a lasting relationship with a nearby parent club.

In fact, Silber tried to do it before the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington was official.

“We had talked about it with Adam Wogan, the farm director, two years ago and tried to make it happen,” Silber said. “But because the team was owned by Major League Baseball, they couldn’t get permission to affiliate with us because they felt it would be too much of a signal that the ballclub was definitely coming to the Washington area. They didn’t want to do that.”

Eventually, the Expos did relocate. And Silber found what is likely to be a permanent identity for his team: the Potomac Nationals, the Class A affiliate of the major league team in the District.

Silber’s team soon will have a new home to match it’s new name. A ballpark in Prince William County is scheduled to open in 2007, a facility as overdue as a permanent affiliation.

The team plays in what is one of the worst minor league ballparks, G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium. The facility was built for the team in 1984, but it has the feel of a recreation league facility. The stands are bench seating. There is no picnic area to accommodate families. Food service is limited. There are no skyboxes, a staple at many new minor league ballparks.

If the stadium is bad, the location isn’t. The park sits about five miles west of Interstate 95 and about 30 miles from the District.

“It really is an ideal situation to be so close to the home club,” Silber said. “It is a tremendous advantage for fans.”

In most cases, that proximity is an advantage for both the minor league affiliates and major league club. Maryland is a case in point.

Peter Kirk changed the game there more than 15 years ago by establishing in-state affiliates for the Baltimore Orioles, first in Frederick and later in Bowie and Salisbury.

Those minor league clubs have flourished, averaging about 1 million fans a year as the Orioles drew record numbers — around 3 million in the same period — to Camden Yards.

The Orioles, however, were an established franchise whose minor league teams had the novelty of being new. The situation is just the opposite for the Potomac and Washington teams: The major league team is the novelty, and the minor league club the established franchise.

That dynamic has had an adverse effect on attendance at Potomac. Crowds average about 1,400 — last in the Carolina League — a decline of about 20 percent from this time last year. The club averaged 2,500 for 67 home games last season.

Silber, though, believes it is a short-term hit.

“In our situation, the major league team coming to Washington is the new thing, and they are getting all the headlines and attention,” he said. “That is hurting, but in the long run we think it will work to our advantage.”

Silber, a retired banker, is not in minor league baseball for the money.

Silber’s love for baseball was born in the shadow of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, where as a teenager he would meet Jackie Robinson as he parked his car before games and walk with him to the ballpark.

“I would wait on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Sullivan Place. He would come down in his car and stop, and the guy from the Mobil gas station across the street would park the car,” Silber said. “I would walk the whole block with him as he walked to the players’ entrance. I called him Mr. Robinson, and he would say, ‘Call me Jackie.’ I did that until I was 15, when we moved from Brooklyn to Queens.

“It was an extraordinary time, the post-war period, when everyone was hopeful, everybody was optimistic.”

The 65-year-old’s passion is on display for Potomac fans to see nearly every weekend when he puts on a uniform and coaches first base.

“There are still times when I am out there in uniform and I have to pinch myself to believe that it is real,” he said. “My dad and I, the one thing we did together was baseball. He died a relatively young man in 1976. He was an immigrant from Poland and had lost his whole family in the Holocaust. He immediately took to American baseball.”

The uniform Silber wears has “Nationals” written across the chest. He has embraced his team’s new identity and hopes, eventually, everyone gets the connection.

Warren Tibbs of Ashburn does. Tibbs wore a Washington Nationals T-shirt and hat at a game against Myrtle Beach on Sunday, sitting with his 2-year-old son, Nelson, on the metal benches that pass for seats at the “Pfitz.”

“I’ve been to a lot of [Washington] Nationals games and even went up to Philadelphia for a couple of games when the season opened,” said Tibbs, who grew up an abandoned Senators fan and rooted for the Orioles until the Nationals arrived. “It’s great to come here and watch the kids who could be major leaguers. And minor league baseball is so family-friendly.”

That is one of the attractions for fans: They could be watching the next Albert Pujols, one of several stars who played for this franchise. Barry Bonds, Andy Pettitte and Bernie Williams also played here.

Now, though, fans will be able to watch those players develop and play for the major league team just up the road, not for a club in a faraway part of the country.

Though the surroundings are minor league — the outfield billboards advertise the Prince William County fair, and promotions like musical chairs for kids take place on the field every inning — the players like the proximity. They read and hear about the Washington Nationals every day, a big change from last year, when the major league club was splitting time between Montreal and Puerto Rico and affiliates were spread across the country.

“I was in Savannah last year, and Montreal seemed like the other side of the world,” Potomac manager Bobby Henley said. “Everything seemed so distant. Now the major league club is right there for those young kids. Making the major league club seems attainable for them now. It’s nice to be so close to the major league team.”

Ender Chavez had two dreams when he looked to the major league club up the road. Not only does he hope to someday play for Washington, but the Potomac outfielder also hoped to play there with his brother, Endy, who in spring training was slated to be the Nationals’ starting center fielder.

That hope ended when Endy struggled in the leadoff role the team envisioned for him. After a stint with Class AAA New Orleans and a dismal call-up to the majors, Endy was traded last week to Philadelphia for outfielder Marlon Byrd.

Ender hopes nobody confuses the two because he still has his sights set on Washington.

“I think the trade will be good for him.” Ender said. “He needed a new start. I hope I can play [in Washington]. It is good to have the team so close. It is like it is right there for us.”

Thirty miles from the “Pfitz” to RFK Stadium — a dream for these young players and a dream come true for Art Silber.

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