- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006

As Ryan Zimmerman threw a ball high into the upper deck during the Washington Nationals batting practice yesterday afternoon at RFK Stadium, God help me, here was what I thought:

Six-foot-three, 210 pounds … how good would he look behind center in a burgundy and gold uniform?

In between all the hoopla over Dallas week, the Nationals returned home yesterday from a seven-game road trip, opening up a three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers — in this town, a situation similar to asking if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise.

No Tom Cruise. No Jamie Foxx. But, hey, Bob Uecker was in the house, and he could have sat in the front row last night. There were plenty of seats at game time.

It’s September, and the attention and atmosphere surrounding the Redskins, compared to the Nationals, is overwhelming this particular year. Last year at this time, it wasn’t as pronounced. The Nationals were winding up their inaugural season. They were a winning team, with a record of 77-71, just 21/2 games out of the wild card.

The Redskins were coming off a disappointing inaugural season upon the return of Joe Gibbs, and had looked mediocre at best in their first game of the season, a win over the Chicago Bears, before heading to Dallas.

Not this year. The Nationals are a losing team, playing out the string of the last 15 games, while the Redskins are coming off a playoff appearance last season, with high expectations going into this season.

It’s Dallas week, Frank. You ready for Dallas?

“Who?,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson asked.

Dallas. Redskins vs. Cowboys. Sunday night.

“We play Sunday afternoon, right?” Robinson asked. “Yeah, I’m ready. Anybody going to score?”

That’s a question Robinson never has to ask of opposing lineups. The answer usually comes in the first three or four innings, when his team is often down by three or four runs.

This is Nationals president Stan Kasten’s first experience with Dallas week, and he has rarely, if ever seen anything like this town’s obsession with the Redskins. He got a taste of it when addressing RFK workers for the first time after the Lerner-Kasten group took over the team in July. There, in the front row, were several workers very prominently displaying their Redskins lunch bags.

“It’s an amazing thing,” Kasten said of seeing the mania over the Redskins. “It truly can be described as a cult, a fanaticism that the fans here seem to have for the Redskins.”

But Kasten is not put off by it, or intimidated. He said he sees it as the potential that is there not just for the Redskins, but any sports franchise — in this case, the Nationals — to cultivate.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Kasten said. “I take great heart in it, because it suggests that is the kind of fan loyalty that exists in this market if you get things right. That’s the lesson I take out of it, at least that’s my hope.”

He was in a unique situation in Atlanta, where he was the president of three of the city’s sports franchises — the Braves, the Hawks in the NBA and the Flames in the NHL. His only real competition was the Atlanta Falcons, and they didn’t strike fear in anyone’s heart.

“For the first six to eight years of the Braves renaissance, we had that kind of rabid fan base,” Kasten said. “But Atlanta is a different city, where it is always soft in all sports — nothing like this, where year in and year out, irrespective of good year or bad year, you have fans that can’t get enough of it. It is a unique thing in sports. There aren’t many others like it.”

No, there aren’t. In baseball, there are the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs, and in football, the Steelers may rival that passion. But those are teams with years of tradition, and baseball here in Washington is still waking up from a 34-year coma, though there was certainly brain activity taking place.

“We hope baseball can do it here,” Kasten said. “Again, it’s unique, which means it is not easy to replicate. But I think it is a hopeful sign that there exists in this town a mind-set that can maybe grow into that. We hope to be building something that fans adopt the same way that they adopted the Redskins.

“Now, another thing about the Redskins is that they have had 75 years of time. Those things do take time to build up. This is our second year here. But again, what that demonstrates is the baseline level of fan loyalty that is here to be tapped.”

It shouldn’t be a matter of transferring loyalties. There should be enough passion to go around. If and when that happens — when it is September and expectations are high for the Redskins and the Nationals are in the thick of a pennant race in their new ballpark — then this city will have matured as a sports town, not just a Redskins town.

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