- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

In spring, hopes and expectations soar higher than eagles can fly for baseball fans — and for the professionals as well.

Washington Nationals fans are no exceptions, and this season they have more reasons than most to feel the team is on an upward avenue.

It’s not just the shiny new stadium, where regular-season play begins tonight. This spring training season down in Florida, for the first time since Major League Baseball returned to the city, a very grown-up word was regularly uttered: competition.

In contrast to the virtual open auditions that were being held last year and earlier, at all positions there was the expectation that players had to perform at the major league level, or there was somebody at the edge of the diamond ready to step right in.

This was even true for the often-maligned starting pitching rotation. The point was underlined with the recent release of John Patterson, of whom much had been hoped. No longer were the Nationals willing to hang on to a slim chance that he might return to the level of a few seasons ago before injuries began to mount.

While it is planned for President Bush to throw the ceremonial first pitch tonight, it’s not quite the same as in previous incarnations of big league baseball here.

Way back when I was growing up, it was always a sun-dappled field at old Griffith Stadium. Adding to the glory of it, this was a day you could skip school and no one complained: I was at the ballpark for opening day.

Of course, in my father’s time the same held true for World Series games. By the time I came along, though, owner Clark Griffith was no longer being called “the Old Fox,” and “Light Horse” Harry Lee’s paean to George Washington had been modified to “Washington: First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”

So, while fans may freeze at a night game in March, Washington is now in the National League and the new era is continuing.

The new park, already with a reputation as being hitter-friendly, is an attraction in its own right. There is the plaza overlooking center field, where most of the crowds will enter, that offers a great view of the field and will be the hub of a host of activities and amenities, many of which never entered my mind as a youngster. Back then, the game itself was sufficient.

Now, there will be a new Washington Hall of Stars banner, a Presidents’ Club and a 4,500-square-foot high-definition scoreboard, presenting amazingly sharp images. One unique feature of the club: The indoor batting cages can be seen from behind a glass wall, as well as the interview room where postgame press conferences will be conducted.

All of this may be some sort of mysterious psychic payback for all the years that the metropolitan area was forced to do without the sport.

Once again, the area’s young boys of summer will have a chance to emulate their older-brother boys of summer and conjure up dreams of following in their footsteps. Once again, fathers can do the seasonal ritual of passing on to the next generation their knowledge of, and love for, the game.

But as spring turns into summer and is followed by autumn in its turn, a harsher reality may creep in to stir unease. While the Nationals are markedly better, so are the other teams in their division. Though the home team has taken perhaps two steps forward, it may end up with a record not much better than last season.

For now, though, let’s stick with the rosy dreams inspired by spring.

Stroube Smith, a former copy editor for The Washington Times, is a freelance writer.

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