- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

METAIRIE, La. — Outside Zephyr Field before the first game of the New Orleans Zephyrs’ season last night, about a dozen shiny new cars from a local auto dealer sat on display, potential prizes for fans who signed up for a chance to win.

It was a nice contrast to the cars typically seen around New Orleans. Under Interstate 10, thousands of battered, mud-covered cars are waiting to be stripped and then crushed in the slow cleanup following Hurricane Katrina seven months ago. Thousands more remain on the streets and in driveways of destroyed homes.

How many? Try nearly 300,000, with an estimated cost of $100million — just one thing on New Orleans’ to-do list that may stretch from one end of the Mississippi to the other.

The enormity of the daily challenges that residents still face here can be overwhelming. Many came to Zephyr Field last night to escape that — some for the first time — as the Washington Nationals’ Class AAA minor league affiliate became the first professional sports team to open a season here since Katrina.

“This is my first Zephyrs game,” New Orleans resident Troy Coleman said. “We wanted to check it out because this may be all we have. People need this to take away the stress from looking at the ruins we have around here. It breaks your spirit sometimes, so it is good to have someplace to have fun.”

Fun, like everything else, is on short supply in New Orleans, a city whose personality was once defined by it.

“It’s been disruption and pain and death and financial disaster — you name it — for a whole bunch of people,” said Zephyrs broadcast analyst and former New York Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda, a longtime resident of New Orleans. “It’s been horrendous, and it has changed everybody in the city forever, in some ways that they don’t even know yet. But to come out here on opening night and see Zephyr Field put back together is a great feeling.”

It certainly was a great feeling for Walter Leger, one of the minority owners who also serves on the Louisiana Recovery Authority — the body overseeing the rebuilding of southern Louisiana. He was among the first to come back to Zephyr Field when the National Guard and FEMA used the stadium as a base of operations.

“The other teams have left, and they’re still not really back,” Leger said. “We haven’t left, and we’re not going anywhere.”

The Saints are scheduled to return to play at the Superdome this year after playing their home schedule last season in San Antonio and Baton Rouge. The Hornets have played their home games in front of big crowds in Oklahoma City, though they did play three games at New Orleans Arena and are also expected to return to the city to play next season.

But residents here look at promises from outsiders with bitterness and mistrust.

“Emotions are still raw here,” Leger said.

Daryl Peltier, another New Orleans resident and a Zephyrs season ticket holder, is suspect about the future of professional sports in this town.

“This may be all we’ve got left if the Saints and Hornets bail out on us,” he said. “This is especially important today because of Katrina. It’s a chance to get back to normal and get away from the craziness.”

It was also a chance for old friends to get together, some of whom haven’t seen each other since the Zephyrs called off their last home series and fled to Oklahoma City days before Katrina arrived in August. “If you haven’t seen anyone for a while, the first question you ask is, ‘How did you do?’ ” Leger said.

“I saw a guy — a mountain of man who had played high school football with me — at a Home Depot, and I hadn’t seen him in a while,” Leger said. “Our eyes met, and before he could even say anything, his eyes started to fill up with tears. I couldn’t believe this man was crying. His family had lost their homes and pretty much everything.

“For so many people, every aspect of normal life is gone,” Leger said.

That is what the Zephyrs tried to deliver last night in their opener against the Round Rock Express — at least the illusion of a normal life.

“We hope we can give people here some relief,” Zephyrs first baseman Larry Broadway said.

A sellout crowd of 10,000 was on hand at the ballpark in Metairie, on the outskirts of New Orleans, to embrace the illusion. They welcomed New Orleans singing legend Irma Thomas for the national anthem and cheered as Zephyrs players, wearing a special pullover with the words “Proud to call New Orleans home,” removed the pullovers and tossed them into the stands.

“We can’t talk about anything else down here but this [Katrina] stuff,” Leger said. “People have been waiting for baseball, for something good.”

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