- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 31, 2007

Along with spring, hope arrives in every baseball fan’s heart over the prospects of his team’s chances in the coming season. All through spring training, every hint of progress is maximized, every sign of weakness minimized.

Washington Nationals fans are no different. Even when winter’s last blizzard was burying my yard with snow, my mind’s eye was watching the Nationals struggle with a roster that went from A to Z — from Luis Ayala to Ryan Zimmerman.

While every expert writing for any sort of publication saw only gloom and doom this season in the nation’s capital, the Nationals’ new, young manager, Manny Acta, firmly announced he had no intention of being in charge of a last-place team.

So as the third season of the rebirth of Major League baseball in Washington gets under way tomorrow, there are reasons for some optimism. And we can look forward to a summer that is more than a grim holding action while the new stadium is completed and the grand plans of ownership and management come to fruition.

That brings us to a key point of comparison with the franchise at the other end of the Washington-Baltimore Parkway — a rational management.

Don Peter of the Inner Harbor recently revealed, perhaps even boasted of, another classic Angelosism. His “baseball people” after lengthy negotiations had put together a trade that would have brought to the Baltimore Orioles a power-hitting, fine-fielding first baseman. It was a deal, Peter Angelos conceded, that would have been good for the team. So, of course, he had to blow it up.

It was another demonstration why what was once a model baseball franchise has been reduced to a laughingstock and why even though a professional front office and a fine coaching staff has assembled a solid team of position players and what looks like a sound pitching staff despite Mr. Angelos’ best efforts, it is doubtful the Orioles will ever again have true success as long as the present ownership is in place.

In contrast, the Jim Bowden-Stan Kasten front office, with no apparent interference from the controlling ownership, has both long- and short-term plans to make the Nationals competitive. There have been practically no quibbles about the long-term scheme, and even the short-term outlook may be less dire than many fear.

A core of solid, comparatively young players to build around has been assembled, including catcher Brian Schneider, closing pitcher Chad Cordero, middle infielder Felipe Lopez and outfielder Austin Kearns. If they make successful returns from injuries, starting pitcher John Patterson, relief pitcher Luis Ayala, shortstop Cristian Guzman and first baseman Nick Johnson can be added to this group.

There is a bevy of outfielders just entering their prime who have shown great potential. Maybe the season has finally come for one or two of them to actually reach that potential. The open auditions of once-prize prospects from other teams and veterans trying to squeeze out another year or two seem to have produced enough talent to fill the gaps in the batting order and produce what on paper looks like a Major League pitching staff.

Everything must go right, of course, for the Nationals to have a winning season. Prospects must blossom; comebacks must actually arrive. It is hard to see any depth anywhere, so there is no margin for injuries.

Still, it’s spring when hope always lights up hearts, minds and souls. It’s too early to remember that when October finally rolls around, only two teams will be playing in the big enchilada — the World Series.

Stroube Smith, a former copy editor for The Washington Times, is a free-lance writer.

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