- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Washington Nationals’ eight-day winter caravan kicked off yesterday morning at Kimball Elementary School in Southeast with one — count ‘em, one — player on the major league roster on hand from the start.

Technically, I don’t think that qualifies as a caravan. It’s more like one of those mini-cars the Shriners drive around in parades.

Still, for the 275 kids at the school, if the whole Nationals roster showed up, they would have still played second fiddle to the two mascots (Screech and one of the racing presidents, Teddy Roosevelt) who were the hit of the event, sending the kids into a screaming frenzy.

Two mascots to one player — sounds like the ratio you might see at RFK this season. The No. 1 complaint at the ballpark in 2007 could be “Can you please ask the Secretary of the Interior to remove his giant head? We can’t see the game.”

Nook Logan was one Nationals player the Kimball students got to meet, and he did a fine job, as well as new manager Manny Acta. Both delivered positive messages about the importance of staying in school and being good citizens, but from what I saw, these kids had already been well-versed in those lessons. I’ve been to staff meetings at The Washington Times that weren’t as well-behaved as these kids were for this Nationals assembly.

(I particularly loved the school song the students sang: “We are the Kimball boys and girls; we loved our school and friends; we work and fight to keep it right; oh, Kimball, we are for you; honesty and justice are our guides; our faith and glory, too; we work and fight to keep it right; Oh, Kimball, we are for you.” I think they should add it to the seventh-inning stretch at the ballpark.)

Principal Sheila West-Miller should be proud of the work she and her staff have done there. “We work on what we call ‘learning focus’ every day,” she said.

The Nationals may want to bring her to spring training as a “learning focus” consultant.

With nearly 70 players expected for spring training, focus may be a priority. It would have been nice if more than one player out of 70 could have focused enough to have been at the first stop of the caravan (Mike O’Connor had a doctor’s appointment and showed up at the end), but this is still a team that seems to be operating as if its hands are tied, even under the new ownership of the Lerners and Stan Kasten.

“We don’t have players who live here” said Al Maldon, one of the owners and senior vice president of external affairs. “We have Ryan Zimmerman who is close by. It is very difficult to try to do something. We don’t have players living here that would make it is lot easier to do stuff. We understand that. … I think you will see a lot more promotion. We are working on it. Our players will be in the community, and doing autograph signings. We just came on board, so we are working all the time to see what other things we can do.”

Look, no one doubts the Nationals will make a strong commitment to being part of the District community and urge their players to do so as well. They have a partnership with Kimball and have repeatedly said community service will be a priority.

Yesterday Maldon announced the club is inviting District middle school students to a March 31 exhibition game at RFK, including transporting them to and from the game.

“I can tell you that we are dedicated to this,” Maldon said. “We are real serious about it. We are out all the time, working with schools, hospitals. We want to be known in this community as good corporate partners and good neighbors.”

Fine and dandy. But it is still a business, and the message the Nationals have sent out to their customers so far this winter is that we don’t have to prove anything to any of you. When you find one promotional effort this winter that would give you the impression that Major League Baseball doesn’t own this team anymore, let me know.

We have heard the Lerner ownership is spending millions on the new ballpark, and their track record indicates they will do what it takes to make the facility first-class. And Kasten’s track record in Atlanta indicates he knows what it takes to mold a first-class organization.

But fans are spending money now, not on the future or the past, and are hungry right now for anything about Washington baseball. They deserve a full-course meal, not crumbs.

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