Saturday, January 27, 2007

If Washington Nationals owner Ted Lerner thinks that free agent salaries are out of control, he should get a look at the prices for jerseys at the team store in White Flint Mall in Bethesda.

A Rick Short Washington Nationals batting practice-worn jersey sells for $199. He played just 11 games as a National. For a game-worn jersey by Hector Carrasco — a journeyman relief pitcher — the price is $299.

Now I know why the Nationals are bringing 70 players to spring training. That’s a lot of jerseys to sell, maybe enough to even pay the Nationals’ paltry 2007 team payroll.

The Nationals winter caravan, otherwise known as the Pep Boys tour (Manny, Nook and Mike), made a stop this past week at the Nationals team store in White Flint. Outside the mall, the electronic sign touted an upcoming “Camp Fair” at the mall. I swear for a second that in between advertisements for equestrian and computer camps, I saw one for a baseball camp starting Feb. 13 in Viera, Fla. (I would urge any Nationals fans coming to spring training to bring a catcher’s mitt. With 37 pitchers invited, they may be recruiting backstops from the crowd).

Inside the mall, Nationals manager Manny Acta conducted what was called a “meet and greet” with Nationals fans, sort of what he probably will be doing the first couple of days of spring training. He already knows two players — Nook Logan and Mike O’Connor — pretty well since the three of them have spent the week traveling the region promoting the team, if that is what you can call this lame effort (nothing against the Pep Boys, they did a fine job at the stops where I saw them, but this was the sort of baseball winter caravan that comes with a tank of gas).

Now, when the team announced the caravan, they included the franchise star Ryan Zimmerman as one of the attractions. But I guess somewhere in the fine, fine print, they may have pointed out that Zimmerman wouldn’t be making any of the District or Maryland appearances this week. He is, though, supposed to be at the Virginia stops this weekend.

One Nationals fans who brought her children to the store had not read any such disclaimer. She said to Manny, “We were hoping to see Ryan Zimmerman.”

Thank goodness one of the Racing Presidents was on hand to placate the crowd, Abe Lincoln. And one of the kids was talking trash to Abe.

“Hey, I hear Teddy’s been working out,” he said.

Mascots, baby. Expect to see lots of mascots this season.

Manny said that he has been very pleased with the welcome he has received so far from fans on the caravan.

“We’ve gotten an outstanding reception from people,” he said. “I love meeting them face-to-face. They are hoping for a good season and are well informed. And they have shown a willingness to be patient, which we need. But we are going to try to win right away.”

Manny may look upon these days at White Flint and the local Safeway as the high point of his first year as Nationals manager, because that willingness to be patient is easy when they have yet to see the product on the field. And some fans may already have less patience than others.

Jim Hartley, a District native and head of the Washington Baseball Historical Society, came to the store for the event and is one of the more patient fans.

“I am a season ticket holder, and if they subscribe to Manny’s ideas of fundamentals, I think it will be a surprising year,” Hartley said. “I have faith in Manny. He is the first piece of the puzzle. It comes down to pitching. I was impressed by Shawn Hill, what we saw of him last year. Who knows, some of these young guys they picked up might help.”

Robert Dulaney from Sterling also is a season ticket holder who came to White Flint, but with a little more skeptical view.

“There’s no hope for this year,” he said. “When you have John Patterson, who hasn’t even won 10 games yet, and he’s your ace, it doesn’t look good. I’m very disappointed. They are spending less money on players than last year and not doing anything to compete. They’ve given up on this year. I don’t understand why they couldn’t get a little pitching for this year and give the minor leaguers more time to develop, instead of throwing them into the fire.”

But he said his son and daughter still enjoyed this caravan stop. Why?

“They love the Presidents,” he said.

Today the Pep Boys tour stops at the library in Fredericksburg, Va., for a reading circle and book giveaway, then on to another meet and greet at a Red Hot & Blue Restaurant in Richmond. Tomorrow it’s a youth baseball clinic in Virginia Beach, and this historic inaugural Lerner/Kasten Washington Nationals winter baseball caravan concludes Monday with three stops at the University of Maryland Student Union, the new ballpark and the Nationals team store in the District.

After that, the next time you will see your Washington Nationals will be when baseball camp opens in Viera. If you come to the Camp Fair this weekend and the computer and equestrian camps are filled up, by all means sign up and bring your catcher’s mitt.

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