- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

It would be nice if the Wizards made the NBA playoffs, the Capitals improved in the latter part of the NHL season and George Washington, Georgetown and Maryland made the NCAA tournament.

It would be nice, but who really cares?

To those of us with a certain mind-set, early February means only one thing on the sporting front: When do pitchers and catchers report?

No, I take that back — actually, early February means three things: When do pitchers and catchers report? When’s the first exhibition game? And how long until the regular season starts. (The answers, in order: Feb. 18, March 2 and April 3.

Can’t you smell it?

Baseball is in the air, more or less anyway, and finally we can concentrate on the game itself now that the D.C. Council has approved a lease with Major League Baseball.

For 33 seasons, Washington-area fans had to content themselves with chirping and cheering for the Orioles or some other adopted outfit. Now, for the second blessed spring, we have a club to call our own — and who knows which Nationals team will take the field April 3 against the Mets at Shea Stadium?

Will it be the wonderful gang that rolled to a 50-31 record in the first half of 2005? Or the woeful wimps who reversed that mark in the second half and finished dead last in the muscular National League East?

I dunno — and neither does skipper Frank Robinson. But we’ll be watching with fingers crossed and perhaps a prayer or two on our lips and in our hearts.

According to just about every survey, baseball has been losing ground to pro football, basketball and maybe squash in recent years. But for many of us who grew up in the ‘40s and ‘50s, baseball remains the sport of choice.

In Washington, the arrival of the Montreal Expos in 2005 triggered an outbreak of emotions that must have surprised observers who think the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court and the Redskins are all that matter hereabouts.

After all, the Nats drew nearly 2.7 million fans at creaky, cruddy RFK Stadium, which wasn’t even a good baseball facility when it first became a horsehide site in 1962. And did you see those stands rock whenever Our Guys staged a rally? You would have thought Frank Howard, the old Senators slugger, had returned to bash another 400-foot home run.

Without steroids, too.

Usually, the offseason is a time for looking and wishing ahead — in our case, to burning issues like whether rookie phenom Ryan Zimmerman can make everybody forget Vinny Castilla and a lot of other third basemen, whether John Patterson will overcome his no-decision tendency and win 20 games and whether Alfonso Soriano will rap 35 or 40 homers while patrolling center field whether he wants to or not.

And, of course, whether somebody will finally get Chad Cordero a cap that fits.

Unfortunately, these questions and a lot of others have been obscured or overlooked this winter because of the wrangling between MLB, which inexplicably still owns the club, and the D.C. Council.

Who cared about Tony Williams, Linda Cropp or Natwar Gandhi unless one of them could play shortstop and hit better than Cristian Guzman?

What difference does it make whether the Nats are sold to the Malek-Zients group, the Lerner family or Jeff Smulyan and his cohorts from Seattle unless one of them can fill a hole in the starting rotation and win 15 games?

In the best of all baseball worlds, everything would be settled by March 2, when Grapefruit League play starts. In the spring, a young man’s fancy — and a senior citizen’s memory — turns to baseball. I don’t want to hear otherwise. I don’t want to hear anything except the crack of the bat.

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