- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2009

Though the Washington Nationals are entering their fifth season in the District, in many ways they remain novices in baseball, a franchise still trying to capture the hearts of the local fan base and become a D.C. institution.

The club’s first attempt at a winter fan fest Sunday - dubbed “NatsFest” - won’t come close in scope and participation to the more-established annual events held by other teams. Don’t expect a Washington version of “Cubs Convention,” the gold standard of fan fests that last weekend drew thousands of championship-starved Chicagoans who gobbled up tickets so fast that the three-day event sold out in 20 minutes.

NatsFest will be a tamer affair, but club officials said they hope this inaugural event at Nationals Park - which comes at the end of a weeklong Winter Caravan through the region - becomes a regular and popular date on the offseason calendar.

“I think tomorrow is a first step,” team president Stan Kasten said Saturday. “Ultimately, we hope we see the success of some of the more established teams. We know there’s a place for this in the middle of the winter, when people haven’t been thinking about baseball for a while and now are gearing up for it. This really gets them back into it.”

Kasten didn’t have a prediction on attendance, but he said he has heard nothing but positive feedback from fans. All season-ticket holders were given an opportunity to acquire four free passes to NatsFest. Everyone else can buy tickets at the gate for $10 ($5 for children under 12).

However many show up, all fans will have the same opportunity to get autographs and take photos with players, pepper Kasten, general manager Jim Bowden and manager Manny Acta with questions, take a tour of the Nationals’ clubhouse and take swings in the underground batting tunnel.

The event will be held on several different club and suite levels of the ballpark, giving fans a rare glimpse into the more posh areas of the facility.

“It’s such a great ballpark,” Kasten said. “We want people to come in and see some of the private areas, see the clubhouse and do those kinds of things. It’s a fantastic ballpark for that kind of thing.”

Eight players are scheduled to appear: third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, pitchers John Lannan, Scott Olsen, Garrett Mock, Steven Shell and Terrell Young and outfielders Josh Willingham and Willie Harris.

Note - Jack McGeary, one of the organization’s top pitching prospects, elected to drop out of Stanford and become a full-time minor leaguer.

Bowden revealed the 19-year-old left-hander’s intentions during a radio interview with Baseball Prospectus, though McGeary doesn’t plan to announce anything until spring training. The Nationals convinced the sixth-round pick from the 2007 draft to sign only after offering him first-round money ($1.8 million) and a chance to attend Stanford during the school year. Though McGeary had professed a desire to earn his degree before leaving school, team officials privately believed he would become a full-time player before then.

McGeary went 2-2 with a 4.10 ERA last season in 13 starts at the rookie-ball level.

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