- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — Ryan Church knew what to expect when he returned to New Orleans to join the Washington Nationals’ minor league affiliate.

Or he thought he knew.

The Nationals’ outfielder had played before in New Orleans with the Class AAA Zephyrs. But Church and his wife weren’t prepared for what they saw when they recently drove into the city and got a firsthand look at the damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina seven months ago.

“Television doesn’t do it justice,” Church said. “It was like a war zone.”

Much of the city looks like just that, a war zone: crumbled buildings, piles of debris, houses that still bear spray-painted figures representing the number of dead people found inside. Almost two-thirds of the city remains without water or electricity.

But the Zephyrs hope to be baseball’s version of the United Service Organizations for residents living in and near these hard-hit neighborhoods.

The Zephyrs open their season tonight at still-damaged Zephyr Field, making them the first professional sports team to call New Orleans home again.

The New Orleans Saints of the NFL played their “home” games last year in Baton Rouge, La., and San Antonio — and one in New York. The New Orleans Hornets of the NBA have played most of their home games in Oklahoma City, though they recently played three at New Orleans Arena.

The Saints and Hornets eventually committed to going back to New Orleans for good, but the return of those teams was by no means certain, and there was much public debate about whether they would abandon the city.

That decidedly was not the case with the Zephyrs: The team let the city know within two weeks after the hurricane that it planned to stay put.

The Zephyrs’ Opening Day has become something of a symbol of normal life amid the chaos.

“I hope we can give people some relief and show that the city is trying to get back on its feet,” outfielder Tyrell Godwin said. “It has nothing to do with loving baseball or anything like that. It is just a sign that things are starting to come back to normal.”

Things, though, are not exactly normal at Zephyr Field, located in Metairie on the outskirts of New Orleans. The stadium, which opened in 1997, sustained about $7 million in wind damage from Katrina.

Scaffolding towers stood in the upper deck of the 10,000-seat ballpark Tuesday afternoon as workers tried to install a new sound system. Workers yesterday were replacing sections of the roof, a job that is a long way from completion.

Still, the stadium has come a long way from the days when it served as a staging area for National Guard relief efforts.

“Two weeks after the storm, I flew into Baton Rouge and drove to Zephyr Field and lived there for more than a month,” Zephyrs general manager Mike Schline said. “It was like a military camp. It was chaotic, but at least it was being used for something positive. It was still functioning and serving a purpose.”

Now it has a different purpose.

The bad news for the city doesn’t seem to stop: The cost of the levee repairs has tripled initial estimates, there have been battles with FEMA over the establishment of a trailer park community in Algiers — a neighborhood in New Orleans — and a bitter mayoral race wages on with most of its residents still living hundreds of miles away.

The purpose of Zephyr Field, starting tonight with the team’s opener against the Round Rock Express followed by a fireworks show, is simple: give residents a respite from the barrage of bad news.

“I really feel it’s very important,” manager Tim Foli said. “People need something they can look forward to. Again, it’s not easy, and it’s not going to be normal for a while. If we can give just a little peace, where they can enjoy themselves … go to a ballgame and enjoy themselves, take their family and start to regroup. Then, that’s what we need to do — give them a start.”

The last time fans saw the Zephyrs, who enter their second year of affiliation with the Nationals, was Aug. 26 — the first game of a scheduled four-game series against Iowa.

Team officials canceled that series and evacuated to Oklahoma City when reports showed Katrina bearing down on New Orleans. One bus carried the players and officials, while another took family members for the 575-mile, 13-hour drive. They left Zephyr Field at about 9 p.m. on Aug. 27 and arrived in Oklahoma City the next morning.

“When they said they were going to cancel the game and try to get out before the storm hits, I was thinking, ‘It can’t be that bad,’ ” Godwin said. “We had canceled a series before, and it wasn’t that bad. We figured they were just taking extra precautions. When I turned on the television in the hotel in Oklahoma City, I saw people standing on the roofs of their houses with flooding everywhere.

“We had been complaining that we had to bus 12 hours and hurry up and pack some stuff up, and we thought we were in a bad situation,” he said. “Then when I turned on the television, I saw how bad things were and realized how lucky we were. I was getting calls from friends asking, is you car back in New Orleans? I could have cared less about the car then.”

Baton Rouge native Roy Corcoran, a pitcher, had many friends in and around New Orleans. “It was horrifying to watch on television,” he said. “I had a lot of friends nearby here who got hit pretty good. It hits home with people you know and love.”

Most of the players on the roster this season were not with the club last year, so the team gave them a firsthand look at the damage wrought by Katrina.

Players yesterday took a bus tour of the heavily damaged parts of the city, which is to say most of the city. Fifteen signed up. Outfielder Kenny Kelly declined. “I saw enough driving in here,” he said.

So have the people who live here. Now they will see baseball.

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