- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

As the takeover of the Washington Nationals by their new owners draws closer, anticipation grows over what exactly Lerner, Kasten and Co. will do once they officially are in charge.

Does the stated goal of player development mean the team will be gutted and veteran stars like Alfonso Soriano and Jose Vidro will be traded? Or how will the new owners enhance the fan experience at RFK Stadium given the limitations of the 45-year-old facility?

There are, however, no questions about one item on the agenda: community involvement. In what would be a dramatic change for the franchise, there will be more relationships with charitable and civic organizations. Certainly more players will be seen in the community.

The record of the Lerner family in this community, through its work in the Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Foundation and its connections with other charities, is long and impressive. And Stan Kasten was a big believer in community service when he operated the Braves, Hawks and Thrashers in Atlanta.

“I think everyone agrees it is the right thing to do,” Kasten said. “All responsible corporations have an active program, and we will be no different. But I also think, in addition, it is good business in two different ways: Community relations is a way to reach your customers when there is no game going on. It is how you make your customers appreciate your brand and to get them loyal to your brand. So from a business standpoint, it is a smart thing to do.

“We also know how important it is for all of baseball to grow its appeal in the inner city. D.C. has a wealth of places for us to go to and tap new generations of fans, new generations of players. If we have an active program that reaches out, we can make real inroads in those important areas.”

One of those inroads that could bring in a new generation of fans — specifically, drawing more black fans and players to the ballpark — is the youth baseball complex Major League Baseball promised to put in the District.

“We are committed at some point — I can’t tell you the exact schedule — but we are going to build the next baseball youth complex in D.C.,” Kasten said. “Baseball is committed to that, and we’re committed to that. That is something we can identify already as something that will be very near and dear to our hearts.”

It occurred to me that, in their quest to tap new generations of fans and players, the Nationals might want to find a way to fill a void by bringing baseball back to Howard University.

Seven schools in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference still field teams. But Howard dropped baseball four years ago when athletic department officials declared they didn’t have adequate facilities for a team to practice and play. It seems like a natural for the Nationals and the school to work together to find a way to restart the program.

Talk about bringing new fans to the ballpark: Why not hold doubleheaders, with Howard’s team following a Nationals day game? Obviously, logistics and other issues could make it difficult, but it seems at least an idea worth considering. There are others as worthy, such as supporting baseball in District high schools. But this would be an important statement.

Kasten was intrigued by the idea.

“It’s an interesting item that you raise,” he said. “There will be many more like that. We are going to have to look at all of them and pick a direction and pick the projects that we can do. Obviously, we can’t do all of them. But what you point out sounds like something we should explore and think about, among the possibilities of the projects we want to pursue.”

Well, they can stop the exploring before it even starts. Howard has no interest. Nada. Zip. In an e-mail, athletic director Dwight Datcher said, “Sounds like a great idea for teams with baseball. However, Howard University has no interest at this time.”

I was stunned he dismissed the notion so easily, so I followed it up with an e-mail that said, “I think the idea was to help the school bring baseball back. Still no interest, correct?”

Datcher answered, “Correct.”

I don’t know whether this response is a statement about Howard University or the utter lack of interest in baseball in the black community. But if I were Major League Baseball and the Washington Nationals, I would take it as a measure of how far the game has to go to find a place again in the hearts and minds of black fans.

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