- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ninety minutes before the last baseball game of the season at Nationals Park, storm clouds gathered, a downpour began and members of the grounds crew hurriedly spread a tarp over the infield.

It seemed appropriate. Perhaps the Nationals would escape the double indignity of playing a game nobody cared about in front of one more small crowd in their two-year-old yard. But, no, they eventually played the 81st game of 2009 on South Capitol Street.

Someday, somehow a late September game in the District will have great significance, but don’t hold your breath.

As they slunk onto the field, the Nats were an unsnappy 54-103 and assured of bamboozling all the cockeyed optimists who swore in April that this team couldn’t possibly be as bad as last season’s 59-102 sad sacks.

Yet some folks preferred to take the cup-is-half-full approach. A couple of hours earlier, sports author John Feinstein stood in the home clubhouse and insisted, “In the Washington area, this is the hot team right now.”

Sadly, this was true. The Nats had whupped the almost equally dismal Mets two straight, which was more than enough to claim at least temporary superiority over such abysmal rivals as the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and Maryland Terrapins.

Outside the clubhouse, the players’ bags and trunks stood in line awaiting transfer to Atlanta for the season’s final four games. Inside too many players awaited transfer to… who knows where next season? Estrada, Segovia, Burke, Garate, et al? Some of these guys might not even be household names in their own households.

In a room near the clubhouse, interim manager Jim Riggleman adroitly dodged questions about his future.

“The best thing in baseball is to play,” said Riggleman, a 56-year old who grew up in Rockville and entered Wednesday 28-42 since relieving Manny Acta on July 13. “If you can’t play any more, the best thing is to manage. … I’d rather be in this position than not be in it.”

With this ballclub? Really?

“I can’t be happy with our record, but I’m pleased with the progress this team has made. We’ve had a great opportunity to do some evaluating. We know we’ve gotta be better.”

What’s this guy doing in baseball (at least until season’s end Sunday)? Anybody who can spin like that belongs in politics.

The Nats billed their not-so-grand home finale as Fan Appreciation Day, a literal no-brainer if there ever was one. The rain stopped in time for pregame ceremonies that were viewed by a handful of spectators. The Nats announced that some in-game uniform jerseys would be given away, along with a 41-inch high-definition television. Personally, I’d rather have the TV.

They also showed a videotape of “2009’s top moments” on the video screen. It was a very short videotape.

General manager Mike Rizzo gave a very short speech in which he thanked the fans for their support and promised a contending team “in the near future.” When exactly? Your guess is as good as Rizzo’s.

So then they started the game, a chillingly irrelevant exercise between two teams that were a combined 73 games under .500. Ryan Zimmerman’s 33rd home run gave D.C. loyalists a chance to yowl in the eighth, and the Nats won it 7-4 on Justin Maxwell’s grand slam in the ninth.

It was a marvelous victory. Also a totally meaningless one.

The day’s announced paid attendance was 23,944, although many ticket buyers apparently found somewhere better to be. That left the Nats with a 2009 home average of 22,715, or a drop of nearly 6,300 from last season. So much for interest in ineptitude.

And here’s another scary stat: Since the Nats’ highly illogical 50-31 first half in 2005, their record is 289-455, a winning percentage of .388.

The lamentable expansion Senators were 309-500 for their first five seasons (1961-65), or .382.

The more things change in Washington baseball, the more they don’t.

Worse luck.

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