- The Washington Times - Friday, February 13, 2009

There was the inaugural season in 2005, the much-ballyhooed return of baseball to the District that turned summer evenings at RFK Stadium into a must-see event.

Then there was the transfer of power to a new ownership group with promises of better things to come.

And then it all culminated last year with the opening of a new ballpark that again brought the local spotlight back to baseball.

But as the Washington Nationals prepare to open their fifth season in the District, with pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training Saturday, there is little buzz surrounding this franchise. The team is coming off a 102-loss season. The novelty of Nationals Park has worn off. Season-ticket sales are dropping. And fans are showing signs of mounting frustration.

In other words, the honeymoon is over.

That the Nationals merely exist no longer qualifies as reason for fans to get excited. On-field success now is a prerequisite, and the organization knows it.

“Fans need to see it, but no one needs to see it more than I do or our owners do,” team president Stan Kasten said. “We got in this to win, and we want to win as soon as we possibly can. So you bet this season is important. And then the next-most important one is next season. There are no honeymoons.”

The Nationals hope they took a significant step toward winning this year Thursday when they formally signed slugger Adam Dunn to a two-year, $20 million contract. After an offseason of promises to fans that they would aggressively pursue big-name free agents, the Nationals got their guy days before the entire roster convenes in Florida for spring training.

Dunn’s signing - to the largest contract this organization has handed out since arriving in town - made baseball sense. Washington had one of the majors’ least-productive lineups in 2008, and Dunn (who has hit at least 40 home runs each of the past five seasons) will provide some oomph.

But his acquisition also made sense from a public-relations standpoint. The Nationals needed to show their fans they weren’t going to sit idly by all winter and do little of consequence to improve their roster.

Was it any surprise, then, that Thursday’s news conference to introduce Dunn began with principal owner Mark Lerner encouraging fans to “get on the phone this afternoon” and buy season tickets in the wake of this announcement?

“This is a good move for us on the field, and we hope it’s every bit as good a move off the field,” Kasten said. “It’s a big home run slugger, and fans like that kind of thing. But it’s also a statement that we do intend to use all the tools available to us [to build a team].”

Dunn, whose 6-foot-6, 275-pound frame helps foster a Paul Bunyan-like image, sounded a little sheepish about his potential role as a public relations representative.

“I’m not here to sell tickets,” he said. “I’m here to win games.”

How many games he can win on his own is up for debate. The Nationals won only 59 times in 2008, and while some improvement seems a given, few expect this team to approach the .500 mark this year.

Thus, Washington may need to win back its fans not so much through actual wins and losses but through less-tangible signs of progress on the field. Success in 2009 may hinge more on the emergence of Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes and Jordan Zimmermann than on John Lannan’s season-ending win total.

“I think people know that we have taken a big step toward where we want to be, but to try to call us the team that is going to overtake the Phillies or the Mets is a little premature,” manager Manny Acta said. “The fact is we have a few things still to address. But our fans have been very, very patient. I think they understand. We’re just still looking to make progress.”

Though they received criticism all winter for a perceived lack of activity, the Nationals look at the finished product heading into spring training - with Dunn joined by outfielder Josh Willingham and pitchers Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera as significant additions - and see an improved roster.

There’s still plenty that needs to be sorted out in the next seven weeks. Will Dunn play left field or first base? Will Nick Johnson be healthy, and if so, will he be traded? Will a bullpen woefully thin on experience come together?

By the time the 25-man roster breaks camp and heads north in April, an anxious fan base will await, looking for actual evidence of progress. And make no mistake, the Nationals understand the importance of delivering this time around.

“Fans still want wins,” Kasten said. “It doesn’t matter how many injuries you had; last year’s win total will never be enough for a fan, which I totally understand. So we need both: We need the good intentions, but sooner or later we also need the results.”

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