- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

On the first day of autumn, baseball’s boys of summer often seem like a collective anomaly in knickers. The weather is cooler (or should be), leaves begin to descend, children are back in school. And in the fall, many a young man’s fancy turns to pro football. What else?

Yet at RFK Stadium yesterday afternoon, there remained an air of anticipation and attraction as the Washington Nationals faced down the impotent (meaning without Barry Bonds in the starting lineup) San Francisco Giants. In terms of the significance, the game meant nothing. Yet to those of us who still consider baseball the best sport ever invented, it meant everything because, simply, it was being played.

The Nats aren’t going to make the postseason and with a 78-75 record might not even finish with a winning season. And really, to reiterate an opinion stated in this space six months ago: Who cares? This season they are the object of even unrequited love.

The Washington area’s rediscovered flirtation with the national pastime has been glorious. For one thing, there is that glittering home attendance of 2.5 million with six dates left. For another, there are the sights and sounds of citizens from toddlers to seniors wearing Nats garb and simply talking, savoring baseball.

Fifty-one weeks ago, many of us went bonkers when Major League Baseball magnanimously and belatedly announced the Montreal Expos would become the Washington Whatevers in 2005.

Today, permit me to ask the time-honored question: How was it for you? Better than you could have hoped? I feel that way, too.

How splendid is the opportunity to get in your car and drive to a major league game in Our Town without having to fight traffic on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway or I-95 and deposit your hard-earned bucks into the grubby fists of Peter Angelos. (And isn’t it neat that the Nats, despite their late-season struggles, have a much better record than the Orioles? Next season, when the teams meet six times, watch the Nats pluck those black tail feathers.)

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s still this season, and it shouldn’t end without every Nats fan from Darnestown to Dumfries thanking this gritty, gutsy team for a summer full of fun and games.

Think of the memories.

Chief Cordero striding in from the bullpen in the ninth inning, yanking his cap down over his eyes and firing that devastating fastball past hitters. Brad Wilkerson gritting his teeth as he steps into the batter’s box. Vinny Castilla charging in from third to make all those barehanded grabs and throws. John Patterson’s grim intensity while flinging his awesome assortment of stuff. Little Jamey Carroll’s hustling play and competency at three positions.

And, of course, Frank Robinson staring deadpan from the dugout and then charging umpires and opposing managers like a 40-year-old when he thinks his guys are being shafted.

Or maybe, probably, you have your own list.

Six months ago, we weren’t familiar with any of these things. Now they will help keep us warm through the long winter.

And as we all know, affection works — must work — both ways. Nowadays, the Nats are disappointed and frustrated at their impending postseason elimination after that unexpected, unbelievable 50-31 first half. But the length of the baseball season is both a charm and a curse, meaning that one-day, one-week or one-month wonders eventually fade to black. The Nats are good, not great, and there’s nothing shameful about that.

“It’s been a really exciting year,” Wilkerson said yesterday. “We’re disappointed that we didn’t reach all our goals, but we’ve had a great time here.”

And it will only get better. By next season, the Nats will have honest-to-goodness and well-heeled owners of their own — ones who, if they have any sense at all, will ask and beg skipper Robinson and general manager Jim Bowden to return. Bowden, a wheeler-dealer of the first rank, will swing deals and sign free agents to make the club stronger. And hopefully, some politician will stick a spade into the ground and dig up the first shovel of dirt for the Nats’ new stadium on the Anacostia waterfront.

All that lies ahead — and so much more. For Nationals fans, the future can be neatly summed up by the four-word mantra used in Brooklyn every time the Bums lost a World Series to the Yankees.

Wait ‘til next year.

And give thanks that there will be a next year.

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