- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Washington has been called “the most powerful city in the world” and other things not quite as bold. Like, for example, “Loserville.”

Many sports-challenged locales have vied for such a dubious honor, but the District posted a pretty strong resume. This was a major metropolitan area with no major league baseball team. Its beloved Redskins were an NFL punch line for their free-spending, coach-shuffling and generally inept ways. The Wizards lived in lottery land. The Capitals were slowly disintegrating.

True, the Maryland men’s basketball team won a national championship, the Terps football team had a nice run and D.C. United continued to dominate pro soccer, pleasing its fervent but select followers. On the other hand, the once-mighty Georgetown men’s basketball empire had toppled, George Washington hoops was an afterthought and George Mason a footnote.

Right here was where basketball’s Michael Jordan, hockey’s Jaromir Jagr and football coach Steve Spurrier saw their sterling reputations tarnished before hightailing it out of town. No. 1 NBA draft pick Kwame Brown, aka “The Deserter,” symbolized a franchise’s history of bad decisions. In early 2004, in the very pages of this newspaper, it was written, “For sheer star-destroying brio, Washington stands alone, a capital city of corrosive athletic ineptitude.”

Things have changed a little since then.

Washington “rivals any major city in the country in terms of professional sports, and it’s growing in terms of interest and attendance, ” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

A lawyer by trade, Mr. Tuohey’s job is to aggressively promote the local athletic scene and argue on its behalf. But his case has merit. We might not be ready yet to hoist a “City of Champions” banner atop the Washington Monument, but the sports scene across the board, pro and college, is looking robust. And once Maryland football and men’s basketball teams bounce back, as they almost surely (or probably) will, it will look even healthier.

It all starts with the Redskins because, with all due respect to the other teams, programs and their boosters, this is a Redskins town above all else. The franchise has turned humiliation into hope. The improbable 2004 return of Hall of Fame coach and legend Joe Gibbs was tempered by a shaky first season as he adjusted to a world different from the one he left. But he caught on quickly. Last year, Gibbs and his expert staff led the Redskins to their first winning season and first trip to the playoffs since 1999. They even beat Tampa Bay in the first round.

Forgotten were the ill-advised signings of faded and flawed free agents and a coaching carousel that spun out of control, ejecting Spurrier back to college after two hyped but miserable and perversely comical seasons. Even fan frustration over seating and parking hassles has largely dissipated. Winning does that. Despite losing disgruntled linebacker LaVar Arrington, the feeling is that the Redskins will be even better this year, the lingering quarterback questions notwithstanding.

But the biggest difference in Washington can be spotted from miles away, by the incandescent, nighttime glow over RFK Stadium. For years the ballpark stood dormant except for D.C. United, which has won four Major League Soccer championships. That certainly is cause for pride, but a city is not “major league” without Major League Baseball. The Nationals are here now, with solid, committed ownership finally in place and a glitzy new stadium under construction.

“Baseball is here to stay,” Mr. Tuohey said.

The Nationals might be struggling on the field right now, but the new owners plan to do something about that. Besides, bad baseball is better than no baseball. The only alternative was to adopt another team in a whole ‘nother city, as many fans were forced to do with the Baltimore Orioles.

Maybe one day, Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who fought like a pit bull to keep his team a half-hearted version of Washington’s team, will understand the problem with that. Then again, who cares? Baseball is back in the District. Next week, the Nationals play the O’s right here at RFK, Us vs. Them, and won’t that be something?

Many argue that Washington is a basketball town, too. But it needs a reason. Mired in more than two decades of frustration, the Wizards only two years ago were still in recovery from their latest debacle — the disastrous effects of well-meaning owner Abe Pollin and others believing that Jordan knew how to run a team. (Trading Richard Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse, for example, indicated otherwise.)

Pollin, to his credit, sent Jordan off in his Mercedes and withstood the critics. He made some good hiring moves, and guided by the steady hands of president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld and head coach Eddie Jordan, we have an entertaining team with back-to-back postseason appearances. Gilbert Arenas is but a few refinements and free throws away from becoming a genuine superstar, a marquee player. The idea now is to add some pieces and take the next step, from playoff contender to playoff factor.

It was hard to believe that the D.C. area could be regarded as a college basketball hotbed with the Maryland men wimping out on the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year. But believe it. Georgetown has been brought back by John Thompson III, son of the coach who put the program on the map. George Washington, academic issues aside, is thriving under Karl Hobbs.

Then there were the gritty, gutty Patriots of George Mason. Perhaps you missed that one. If your head was in a bucket for a month. Guided by good-guy coach Jim Larranaga, the big commuter school in Fairfax, Va., with a modest basketball reputation shocked the world by reaching the Final Four after not even qualifying for the tournament since 2001. It might never happen again, but the warm, fuzzy vibe still emanates from deep in the suburbs.

Who else could write such a story? Well, let’s see. How about the Maryland women?

The Lady Terrapins actually did the Patriots one better. Led by Kristi Toliver, Shay Doron and Final Four most valuable player Laura Harper, this unsung, underrated bunch of underclassmen won the whole darn thing, pulling off one of the greatest upsets in the history of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

Unlike the Wizards, with whom they share Verizon Center, the Capitals did not make the playoffs. They didn’t come close, continuing a decline that began after advancing to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998 (with a temporary rise in 2000). There was, however, slight improvement from when they won a paltry 23 games in their previous season, 2003-04 (before the lockout). Amid regrouping and cutting back after the signings of Jagr and other high-priced players failed to work out, they still had the 27th worst record out of 30 clubs this year.

But if you’re going to lose, at least give us some star appeal. Not only did Alexander Ovechkin live up to his billing as a No. 1 draft pick (thus being the anti-Kwame Brown), the Russian became just the second rookie in NHL history to score 50 goals and 100 points in a season. A favorite to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie, Ovechkin was dynamic and spectacular. At 20, he already is considered among the best players in the world, a true game-changer and the Caps’ main building block.

The Caps are not there yet, but like many of the other local teams, they are on their way. Welcome to Winnerville.

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