A National pastime?

BOB ELLIOTT -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:38 PM ET

A total of 184 TVs were turned on inside a sports hangout, the ESPN Zone, on 12th St. in Washington, D.C.

Roughly half of the sets inside the multi-levelled restaurant were tuned to the Washington Nationals-Atlanta Braves game on Tuesday.

Yet, nary a murmur went through the place when Jose Vidro homered for the hometown Nationals in the fourth inning. Few looked up from their nachos, or ribs or burgers, or away from a college hoops game on ESPN Classic.

In the top of the ninth, the Nationals' Brian Schneider hit a two-run double to centre, putting Washington into the lead.

A patron put down his beer, clapped twice, yelled and pumped his fist in the air.

Pretty excited about having a Major League Baseball team again we asked?

"Forget about it, I'm a New Yorker, a Mets fan, I hate the damn Braves," said Terry, who wouldn't give his last name.

Whether we picked the wrong sports bar or this was a barometer of what lies ahead shall unfold. The franchise formerly known as the Montreal Expos plays its home opener tonight at RFK Stadium against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Washington returns home after winning five of nine road games. A few hard-core Expos fans are expected to fly in or make the 10-hour drive from Montreal.

This is Washington's third major-league team. If the franchise was a player, it would be Howie Clarke or Sil Campusano. The original American League franchise left in 1960, the expansion team departed in 1971.

On the one hand, the Nationals can boast of selling more than 22,000 season's tickets for 2005. So, baseball is back.

On the other the buzz around D.C. is much the same as it was in the 1940s when the saying was: Washington, first in war, first in peace, last in the AL.

Now, the District of Columbia is first in war, first in peace and likely last in the National League East.

For example, weekend TV ratings for the Nats games against the Florida Marlins lagged behind Jeopardy, Cops and the beltway staple The McLaughlin Group.

Not familiar with the McLaughlin Group? Well host John McLaughlin discusses political issues with a panel and sums up by saying "Wrong answer!" similar to Bob McCowan's Friday round table on The Fan590.

The Nats did get better weekend ratings than the Washington Wizards-Philadelphia 76ers game.

"I think the franchise will be okay," said Chuck Cottier, who played with the Senators from 1961-65 and is now a New York Yankees scout.

"When the Yanks or Baltimore came in, we filled the place -- there are so many transplanted people in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. they'd come in a cheer for the visiting team."

In 2004, the Expos averaged 8,859 per home game at Olympic Stadium.

The 1971 Senators averaged 8,509 at RFK Stadium before bolting south to become the Texas Rangers.

"We didn't have a good team," Tom Grieve said. "I can speak for most of the players -- when it came time to move to Texas, most of us were disappointed. We loved D.C."

Grieve eventually fell in with Arlington and became the Rangers general manager and is now a broadcaster. He remembers his D.C. days fondly.

"I roomed with Jackie Brown and we lived outside the city," Grieve said. "We'd take a different route to the park, go past the White House or the Washington Monument; you had a sense of history."

Grieve was signed by then Senators GM George (Twinkletoes) Selkirk, who was born in Huntsville, Ont. One day in 1983 after Selkirk retired, we visited him in Pompano Beach, Fla., and the voice of experience said baseball would never go in Washington.

His rationale: "There isn't any industry. Pittsburgh has steel, Milwaukee has breweries, Detroit makes cars and New York has everything. Washington doesn't have an industry -- just a bunch of congressmen and senators who want free tickets and their pictures in the paper every time they come to a game."

Told of Selkirk's comments, Cottier said: "George was an ex-Yankee, he'd replaced Babe Ruth in right field, he was a little more negative than he should have been.

"Wherever you go people love baseball, whether it's grandmas and grandpas, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, or sons and daughters."

They will follow a team owned by MLB, as the 29 owners purchased the Expos from Jeffrey Loria, now the owner of the Florida Marlins, in February 2002. Now, it goes to the highest bidder, as MLB hopes for an auction.

Fred Malek, chairman of Thayer Capital Partners, a Washington D.C.-based merchant bank, was thought to be the clubhouse leader.

However, Atlanta's Stan Kasten, formerly president of the Braves, Hawks and Thrashers, has joined other groups who have deposited $100,000 US for the right to bid on the team.

Possible owners include Franklin Haney, a high-profile Tennessee developer with strong business ties to the Washington region, Jonathan Ledecky and a group led by Memphis investment banker Brian Saulsberry.

As the Expos, the team lost millions, but MLB had hoped to get at least $300 million for the franchise upon its relocation to Washington. While the city has agreed to build a $535-million stadium complex on the bank of the Anacostia River in southeast Washington, the franchise's value has been devalued in the wake of a new TV deal.

A new regional sports network, Mid-Atlantic Sports, will pay $21 million for the team's TV rights in 2005. But Orioles owner Peter Angelos will get 90% of the Nationals' regional rights during the first year. While MLB's share of the network fees will increase over the next 20 years, it will be capped at 33%.

The O's argued -- successfully -- they could lose $30 million in ticket sales, concessions, advertising and parking revenue because of the Nationals' arrival about 80 kilometres from Baltimore.

Despite the Washington market being the eighth-largest in the country, and nearly three times the size of metro Baltimore, Angelos was the power broker in the deal.

As for tonight's game, former Senators such as Dick Bosman, Ed Brinkman, Roy Sievers, Fred Valentine, Frank Howard, Jim Lemon and Joe Grzenda will be there.

Grzenda will be carrying a special package -- the ball he had on the mound when the Senators played their final game, Sept. 30, 1971.

Grzenda came on to protect a 7-5 lead over the Yanks. He retired Felipe Alou and Bobby Murcer on grounders and was supposed to face Horace Clarke next.

But the closing-night crowd of about 14,000 didn't give him a chance.

What came next was like when the villagers stormed the castle and chased Frankenstein. Fans hopped on to the field carrying bed sheets and posters insulting owner Bob Short, who had decided to move the team to Texas.

Wrote Shirley Povich in the Washington Post: "A swarm of young kids, squirts who wouldn't know what it had meant to have a big-league team all these years, or what it would mean to lose one, flooded on to the field from all points of the stands."

The Yanks were awarded a 9-0 forfeit. Yanks shortstop Gene Michael recalls fans leaping on to the field.

"We just had to get out of the way," said Michael, now a Yankees vice-president. "They were out to get pieces of grass, dirt and the bases if they could."

Grzenda raced from the mound with the ball.

Tonight Grzenda will give the ball to U.S. President George W. Bush to continue the Washington tradition of the nation's leader throwing out the first pitch.

And baseball will be back in D.C.

---

Baseball in D.C.

Senators Name Senators

1901-1960 Years 1961-1971

Minnesota Twins Became Texas Rangers

73-81 Final season 63-96

5th Finish 5th

Cookie Lavagetto Manager Ted Williams

743,404 (8th) Attendance 655,156 (11th)

Jim Lemon Best Hitter Frank Howard

Camilo Pascual Best Pitcher Dick Bosman

18 Winning season 1

3 Playoff appearances 0

1924 World Series wins 0


Videos

Photos