- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2009

The long lines that snaked around Nationals Park on Sunday afternoon made it clear there is a healthy appetite for baseball in the District. The questions and pleas from those fans toward team executives at the inaugural “Nats Fest” to improve the majors’ worst ballclub in 2008 also made it clear this town desperately wants a winner.

Members of the front office did their best to assuage fears of another 102-loss season, but no one publicly could promise a pennant run or even a .500 record in 2009.

“I don’t know that the team is going to be much different between now and Opening Day, but we all want it to be,” team president Stan Kasten said during a question-and-answer session with fans. “We all want to continue to supplement what we have, and we’re all working hard at it. … I know we’re going to be better than last year.”

Thousands of fans turned out on a cold January day and stood in long lines to get player autographs, listen to management, tour the Nationals’ clubhouse and bid on memorabilia. But first and foremost the focus was on the state of a franchise that still appears far from reaching its ultimate goal of success.

Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden responded to claims of an ownership group not willing to increase payroll by pointing out the club’s aggressive (albeit failed) pursuit of free agent slugger Mark Teixeira, who signed with the Yankees for $180 million.

“We were not outbid by anyone,” Bowden said. “Our ownership was so committed to winning that we competed at the highest level for that player. Now unfortunately our team’s not good enough on the field right now for free agents to decide they want to play here over places that are proven to get there. But for them to stand up at that level like they did, with that many years and that much money at the table, that just speaks volumes.”

Tough questions from fans aside, the Nationals were happy with the results of their first attempt at a winter fan fest and plan to make this an annual event.

“It looks like a smash success,” Kasten said. “We certainly want to do it again, and we want it to be bigger.”

Zimmerman not worried

Many of the questions that popped up Sunday centered around the status of third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who is not yet signed for 2009. Zimmerman and the club exchanged arbitration figures last week and are headed for a hearing next month unless they can work out a deal on their own.

The arbitration process can often turn nasty, but both sides insisted the relationship remains strong.

“It’s just part of the game, part of the business,” Zimmerman said. “There’s no hard feelings either way. The relationship that we’ve had with the front office has been nothing but positive the whole time I’ve been here, and that’s the way it’s always going to be.”

Fans got particularly enthusiastic when one questioner at the session with Kasten, Bowden, manager Manny Acta and assistant GM Mike Rizzo asked whether he could take over as team president for one hour, during which time he would sign Zimmerman to a six-year extension.

“I hear you,” Kasten said. “I don’t disagree with you. Numbers have to work both ways. But nobody could love Ryan Zimmerman more than the four of us do.”

Extra bases

Ten players wound up appearing at the event, including one surprise who was not previously on the list of attendees: Elijah Dukes. The 24-year-old outfielder, who would have faced jail time if he didn’t pay more than $40,000 in child support and alimony to his estranged wife before a court-imposed deadline Friday, signed autographs and posed for photos. He declined interview requests through a club spokesman. …

Bowden all but confirmed the club will select pitcher Stephen Strasburg with the No. 1 pick in this summer’s draft, saying the San Diego State right-hander is “as good a pitcher as we’ve seen in the draft in 10 to 15 years.” …

Kasten said he has held meetings the past couple of weeks with sponsors interested in acquiring the naming rights to Nationals Park but said there’s no chance a deal would be completed before Opening Day.

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