- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

The Washington Nationals still are baseball’s oddity.

They are a sideshow that managed to entertain 2.7million people this season at RFK Stadium and who knows how many more throughout the country when they were in first place and the toast of baseball.

There was pint-sized Jamey Carroll after the game yesterday, jumping as high as he could to high-five Jon Rauch. Rauch, at 6-foot-11, is the tallest known player in baseball history and probably the most tattooed. Some of his tattooes are bigger than Carroll.

There was the angry man, Jose Guillen, warmly hugging and shaking hands not just with his teammates but with the workers who helped get the Big Top ready for every home game. Guillen had played for six other major league teams and had such a rift with his last one, the Angels, that they kept him off the postseason roster.

And there was Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, who four years ago was asked by baseball to take part in this bizarre experiment and manage a team that was owned by the other 29 major league owners — a team basically owned by its competition. Robinson waved to the cheering crowd, hugged his players, then slowly walked off the field in a baseball uniform for maybe the last time.

These are your Washington Nationals — if not a Cinderella story, then at least an “Our Gang” episode in which the orphans nearly beat out the rich kids down the block.

“I’m proud of this club,” Robinson said. “They gave it all they had.”

And Washington baseball fans soaked up all the Nationals had to offer in their inaugural season. Yesterday, on a beautiful morning in Lot8, tailgaters gathered to celebrate the season finale.

“I had set a goal that if they were in first place by the All-Star break, I would be happy, so I am happy,” said Ray Steiner of Upper Marlboro. “Even though they had that collapse, it has been a great season. Just to have guys like [John] Patterson and [Chad] Cordero to follow and watch develop, that is what baseball is all about.”

Just to have baseball for the first time since the Senators left after the 1971 season and moved to Arlington, Texas, was the cake. The run to first place at the start of the season and, despite a second-half collapse, and being within two games of the wild card as recently as two weeks ago was the icing.

“I was at the last game of the Senators,” Steiner said. “I waited 34 years for this. It has been better than I could have imagined.”

Even a 9-3 loss to the Phillies yesterday and an 81-81 final record didn’t diminish the enthusiasm of the 34,491 fans. The Nationals received a standing ovation when they took the field, and the fans let them know throughout the game that they appreciated the memories the players had created.

And the ballpark was not filled with Phillies fans who came down to see if their team could sneak into the wild-card spot.

When Ryan Church slammed a three-run homer in the sixth inning, the ballpark erupted. When Gary Majewski came out of the game after giving up four runs in one inning, the fans stood and cheered. Majewski acknowledged by tipping his cap.

But the players left for home yesterday not knowing what the future holds for them.

This is a team that has been owned by Major League Baseball since 2002, when the Montreal Expos were purchased from Jeffrey Loria for $120million and forced to operate under the budget restrictions of MLB.

They were a vagabond team in 2003 and 2004, forced to play some “home” games in Puerto Rico. This season, they found a permanent home but still no owner.

That they managed to compete in three of those four years is why Washington fans didn’t just embrace this team. They fell in love with it because it was a team that won in spite of the odds.

This is a franchise that is part of the most convoluted, questionable sports business transaction in the history of American pro sports: Loria turned around and bought the Florida Marlins for $158million, allowing John Henry to join a group that would buy the Boston Red Sox for $700million in a disputed transaction that brought heavy criticism from the Massachusetts attorney general.

All of that began when baseball bought the Expos, and now it is the final act in this drama.

Yet Robinson and the players always managed to reduce it to simply what was happening on the field. No matter how ugly or strange it got, it was always about baseball.

In a corner of the Nationals clubhouse yesterday, backup catcher Keith Osik packed his bags. Unlike some, Osik knows exactly what he is doing next season. After nine major league seasons, the 36-year-old is retiring. He is the new baseball coach at Farmingdale State University in Long Island. Tryouts start Wednesday.

Osik was cut by the Nationals in spring training and went home to Port Jefferson, N.Y. Then the Nationals, wanting to add catching depth for the stretch run, called Osik in August. He reported to Class AAA New Orleans and was called up to the major league club in September.

“I was with Washington in the spring but felt like I didn’t want to go play Triple A anymore,” Osik said. “They felt like they needed a third catcher for September and called to see if I was interested. I couldn’t say no. This was something special here.

“Every kid dreams of being in the big leagues, no matter what the circumstances.”

And now kids in Washington can dream about someday playing for their hometown team, because in 2005 their home town got a baseball team.



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