- The Washington Times - Monday, July 24, 2006

Mark Lerner waited nearly a lifetime for Friday night, when he, his family and his partners first presented themselves to the public as owners of a baseball team.

Lerner had a list of things to do that afternoon and evening that might have stretched from home plate to center field. There was, however, one thing in particular that he had waited for several weeks to do: give Charles Damico a baseball.

There were no reporters or cameras around when Lerner found Damico in the stands at RFK Stadium before Friday’s “grand reopening” of the stadium and quietly gave him the ball.

But the gesture speaks volumes about what happened this weekend at the stadium, where fans got a taste of what it is like when a team has owners with both their wallets and hearts in the right place.

Lerner’s dream came true Friday night, and he shared it with a retired railroad worker from Arlington.

Damico, 71, is a regular at Nationals games. He sits in the disabled section on the Nationals dugout side of the stadium and uses a cane because of two hip replacement operations and a heart condition.

He also brings his glove to every game, just as he has since he was a 5-year-old attending White Sox games at old Comiskey Park in Chicago.

He hopes to use that glove to catch a foul ball, but he never has gotten one.

“I’ve never even come close,” Damico says.

During the final homestand before the All-Star break, Damico was with his wife at a game when he was talking to a team photographer taking pictures in the stands.

“A ball came near here, and I had my glove out,” Damico says. “The photographer asked, ‘How long has it been since you caught a ball?’ I said I’ve been coming to the ballpark for more than 65 years, and I’ve never caught a ball.”

The story got back to Lerner, and he decided that Damico had waited long enough.

“My wife and I were sitting here when someone came up behind me and said, ‘Is this the guy who hasn’t caught a ball in 65 years?’” Damico says. “I didn’t know what was going on. He came over to me and shook my hand and said, ‘My name is Mark Lerner.’ I didn’t catch it at first, then I realized this was one of the guys that owns the team now. He had his wife with him. He introduced her.

“He said, ‘Here’s a ball autographed by the team.’ I was touched by it. It was a total surprise. I had no idea something like that would happen. I am very grateful.”

Damico recalled another special moment, one that happened when was 15 and the 1950 All-Star Game was played at Comiskey.

“There were about 60 kids standing in front of the gate in the parking lot,” he says. “I was about three or four feet in the crowd. Some guy came out and picked me and a few other kids to come in and turn the stiles as people came in. I got to watch almost the whole All-Star Game in the upper deck right over home plate, sitting on the stairs.

“It was great. I saw Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, all of the great players. It was great to just be picked out like that.”

Fifty-six years later, Damico was picked out again.

“What was really impressive to me about it was that they weren’t popping flash bulbs all over the place, and no one really knew what they did,” he says. “There were no cameras or any attention. He just did this, and it was very nice, a great experience.”

That pretty much sums up the weekend debut of the Lerner ownership tenure — a great experience all around.

The features added to the ballpark — a Fanfest on the Stadium Armory Mall, the food court concourse, a stadium work force that took its new marching orders seriously — certainly created a festive atmosphere in a place that was a house of gloom in recent homestands.

It didn’t hurt to have the Chicago Cubs in town, either: The fans they drew helped boost attendance to a three-day total of more than 104,000, and then the team cooperated with a three-game sweep.

“It was very good to go out there and win three ball games, especially with this weekend and all the fans out here all excited. It never hurts to have a lot of fans out there behind you. It makes you feel good. You still have to go out and perform, and we did today. It gets you up a little bit before the game starts, and we carried it into the game,” manager Frank Robinson said.

Damico certainly enjoyed it and hopes it is a sign of good things ahead.

“I hope the Lerners do well as the new owners,” he says. “I hope they make the right choices and pick the right players. I think they have a good team right now, but they are making too many mistakes in the field.”

And he still had his glove ready yesterday, just in case he got lucky.

“I still bring my glove to every game,” he says. “We got a good shot back here for a ball when left-handers are up.”

Lerner declined to talk about the gesture, because that wasn’t the point. It made one fan’s experience at a Washington Nationals game a memorable one. There likely will be more in the future.

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