VIERA, Fla. — One year ago, just minutes before the first spring training pitch by a Washington baseball team in 34 years, the cars on the road to Space Coast Stadium stretched to the horizon. Fans, many from Washington, jammed the little park for a historic moment, full of joy, anticipation and also mystery. Would the ex-Expos be respectable or lose 100 games? Would Washington respond with the hoped-for crowds of 30,000 in makeshift old RFK Stadium? Or some disastrously lower number?
A song, "We Are the Washington Nationals," blared on the PA system as the Nats dashed on the field to an ovation, flash bulbs and a national TV crew. After a third-of-a-century wait, I wasn't very excited. But then I'd never taken two Valiums before either.
This year, at the same juncture, the road to Space Coast was bereft of vehicles. At the first pitch, the stands were three-quarters empty for the Nationals' exhibition game against the Pirates. The previous day, for a pre-exhibition game against a Korean touring team, attendance was 491. On this exquisite 80-degree day with a soft breeze, the lines at the hot dog stands were one deep and none across. Pick a vendor, any vendor. The Nationals took the field to a few polite cheers. I needed caffeine to focus.
Last year's game was unique, a special event. This spring is normal, mundane, with lineups half-filled with unknown players. "The newness wore off," Manager Frank Robinson said. "What did you expect?"
You'd have to be insensate as a commissioner to miss the point. How many of the empty seats here Thursday afternoon were a mirror image of the vacuum in the hearts of first-year National fans. After a horrid off-season of bad-faith betrayal by baseball's brass and Washington D.C.'s politicians, they feel as if they've been kicked in the guts.
Last spring, fans flew down from Washington to hang over the fence to talk to pitchers in the bullpen. Chad Cordero called them "awesome" that day, then sprinted into the game and fanned the side. This week, no fans have chatted up the bullpen. Against the Koreans, the 47-save Cordero, the symbol of the Nationals' thrilling first season, gave up four runs in one-third of an inning. "It was ugly," said one National official.
The omen, the message, almost the prophecy in the scene here this week is unmistakably clear. If baseball and Washington do not reach an agreement, presumably by next Tuesday, on a lease for a new stadium, what will the ramifications be for the long-term relationship between the Nationals and the city that fell in love with them last season? If MLB and D.C. go to an arbitration battle over tens of millions in damages -- which would take months -- what will happen to attendance at RFK this season?
And, if disillusionment grows, what will happen to the value of a franchise that drew 2.73 million fans last season? Now, it's worth $450 million to eight different bidders, all lined up begging. What will it be worth, and who will still want it, if baseball's stubborn brass and D.C.'s feuding Council manage to contaminate Washington's nascent baseball love affair?
"It's our job to play and we'll play," said one National who asked to be anonymous. "What bothers me is that it's not fair to our fans not to know if the team is going to be there in two years. Last year, the whole organization was hamstrung. I pity the guys who were in Montreal. They go from playing in front of 7,000 people to 34,000 a game. Think how great that felt to them. They don't need to go through that again. If it doesn't get worked out, it's going to be sad."
Perhaps the powerful demographics of the Washington area and the good will inspired by last year's wild-card chase will inoculate the Nationals, at least for one season, against all of the sins perpetrated against the franchise. Maybe the sport's cheapskate, third-class citizen treatment of the Nationals -- exemplified by a horrid TV deal, a bottom-third-of-baseball payroll and egregious rookie-league-level facilities for the players at RFK -- won't demoralize the club so that it collapses on the field.
And perhaps all these constant strains will not destroy the working relationship between team President Tony Taveras, General Manager Jim Bowden and Robinson -- though friction is starting to show. Tavares and Robinson have been oil and water since their Montreal days. This week, after Brian Lawrence was lost for the season to shoulder surgery, Robinson annoyed Bowden by saying, "We chose not to give him an MRI [before trading for him]. That's our bad. I would think that would be something to get our attention for the future at least. Why not? But I don't make the policy around here."