- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2007

At the All-Star Game in San Francisco last week, a national baseball writer asked me how the team’s new manager was doing. After spending a few minutes talking about Manny Acta’s performance — without mentioning his name — the subject of Felipe Lopez came up.

The writer looked at me puzzled and said, “Felipe Lopez? He’s not on the Orioles.”

He was asking me about the performance of Dave Trembley, the Baltimore Orioles’ interim manager. The Nationals hadn’t even crossed his mind.

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He is not alone. Beyond Washington, the Nationals — now in their third season — still are an afterthought for many, and there were several other writers during the All-Star festivities who made the same mistake — seeing Washington, thinking Baltimore.

That, of course, will infuriate devoted Washington baseball fans who still resent the Orioles for both real and perceived transgressions — primarily their opposition to putting a team in the nation’s capital.

Next year, though, the profile of baseball in Washington will take a significant leap forward nationally when the new ballpark opens. The stadium should bring national television dates and stories about baseball in Washington — as if it were returning for a second time.

The Nationals got plenty of attention when the franchise first relocated from Montreal in 2005 and kept it much of the season because of the team’s surprisingly competitive play. Starting fast and staying in the playoff picture until September will do that. Also, the presence of Hall of Famer Frank Robinson as manager didn’t hurt.

But now, in a second losing season with a rookie manager in an antiquated ballpark, the team’s existence in some circles seems to have been forgotten. The Nationals did get a good deal of attention when some preseason predictions suggested they could be the worst team in baseball history, but now that they have outperformed those low expectations, they are not as interesting or visible to outsiders. If they indeed were historically bad, the world would notice.

That’s not the kind of attention the Lerner family and Stan Kasten want, though. They will have the pleasure of showing off a new ballpark to America next year and already have taken steps to capitalize on that glow by writing to baseball commissioner Bud Selig about being the host of an upcoming All-Star Game.

There is nothing like an All-Star Game to draw attention to a city and its baseball. The annual fanfest draws thousands of people from all around, and both the Home Run Derby on the Monday workout day and the game itself on Tuesday present a city, its baseball presence and legacy (picture Frank Howard in pregame ceremonies instead of Willie Mays) and the team on the national stage.

“We told them we would love to have the All-Star Game here,” owner Mark Lerner said. “We didn’t ask for any specific year, but we are going to go for one, that’s for sure.”

Not soon, though. Lerner said he believed it would be sometime between 2010 and 2013. Next year’s game will be at Yankee Stadium for the final season of the historic ballpark, and St. Louis, with its new facility, already has been given the 2009 game.

What was not good news for the Nationals‘ hopes of playing host to an All-Star Game soon was Selig’s announcement during this year’s break that he would go back to the traditional method of alternating between National and American League cities as host. That practice fell by the wayside over the past two years, when the game was in Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

If that is the case, the 2010 game likely will go to an American League city — possibly Anaheim and the renovated home of the Angels there. Then there are three National League cities with relatively new ballparks that have yet to hold the game — Phoenix, San Diego and Cincinnati.

Also in the American League lineup, Kansas City has not been host in 35 years, and last spring Selig promised Kauffman Stadium, which is scheduled to undergo renovations, will get an All-Star Game between 2010 and 2014. Tampa Bay has yet to play host, but that would be a hard sell to have baseball’s crown jewel in such a terrible facility. There will be two new ballparks in New York, but with the game being there next year, it would be hard to imagine the Big Apple jumping back in line so quickly.

If Major League Baseball indeed continues to alternate, and if Phoenix, San Diego and Cincinnati are ahead of Washington — there is no guarantee they are — the Nationals possibly are looking at 2017 before the game comes to the District.

That’s a long wait for a national stage to strut on.

Of course, a postseason appearance also would do the trick. Based on the faith the Nationals‘ ownership has asked for in the rebuilding of this franchise, the city shouldn’t have to wait until 2017 for that kind of attention. Hopefully by then, when outsiders see Washingtonians, they will think of Washington’s baseball team.

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