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BASEBALL BREEDS CHANGE IN D.C.


WASHINGTONOver the past three seasons of misery in Montreal, as their team was threatened with extinction, then shuttled to Puerto Rico for many "home" games, Jose Vidro and Brad Wilkerson were the Expos' long-suffering stalwarts, playing by far the most games and, as a result, feeling the full weight of their club's physical and psychological burdens.

Now, though they haven't mentioned it to each other, they have reacted identically to their arrival in Washington. Before and after every home game, they forget the possible shortcuts and parkways that link their apartments to RFK Stadium. Instead, as they drive to and fro, they meander through the city, passing as many monumental marble buildings as possible, soaking up the feeling of power that the city exudes in daylight, then sensing its shimmering magical whiteness under moonlight. Like almost everybody who has ever really lived in the city, rather than simply passing through it, they are beginning to love Washington.

"It's my first time here and I can't get enough of all these beautiful buildings. The structures here are unbelievable," Vidro said. "Every day I go out of my way to drive past the White House and the Capitol. History, man. And at night, it's so quiet.

"I see these huge places, not just the famous monuments, and I say, 'What is that?' " In time, he says, he will visit them all.

Wilkerson was shown the fastest route from his MCI Center neighborhood to RFK. He ignored it. "I could take the back way around 295, but I choose to take Independence [Avenue] the whole way so I can see the city that runs the world. When I get near the ballpark, I take Kentucky Avenue. Reminds me of home a little," said the Owensboro, Ky., native, grinning. "When I go home at night, I cut across 7th Street and see the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument."

Less than two weeks ago, the Nationals talked about how intimidated they were by the District's maze of traffic circles, dead-end streets and crisscrossing avenues. Not one of them thought they'd get any feeling of having a "home" town for who knows how long.

"It's frightening trying to find your way driving around D.C.," Manager Frank Robinson said. After one game, hitting coach Tom McCraw got so lost so often that he needed three hours to get from RFK to his apartment near the Pentagon. His mistake? McCraw played for the old Senators in '71 and had a false sense of confidence. "Nothing is the same. I went everywhere. There's no part of Washington where I wasn't lost," McCraw said. "Are you listening? Three hours, man."

Now, in a matter of days, it's become "Independence" instead of "Independence Avenue" and "7th" instead of "7th Street." Wilkerson, an avid golfer, says that he may play "RTJ" tomorrow, a day off. That would be Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, where the Presidents Cup has been played. "Oh, I'll probably find it," said Wilkerson, who had a two-run upper-deck home run last night in the fifth inning of the Nats' 3-1 win over Philadelphia. "We've all been looking at the maps."

The adjustment has begun so rapidly that some Nats actually find it amusing, especially catcher Brian Schneider, who has many relatives in the area and knows it well. "When we went up to New York [for a three-game series], I heard guys saying that they couldn't wait to 'get back home,' " said Schneider. "That was quick."

The mutual adoption of town and team has been so swift because each needed the other so badly. "We have fans who are desperate to see baseball. I can see those stands [bouncing]. It's crazy," said Vidro. "This feels like a big-time sports town. . . . That didn't happen in Montreal. Nothing against Montreal."

Yeah, nothing against Montreal, except that, exactly one year ago at this time, playing baseball as a representative of that city was an utter indignity. "Just to look at that schedule [last April], you got mentally tired," said Vidro. "It was a killer for us."

In fact, it killed the whole '04 season as the Expos started 6-20. No team has ever endured such mortification. Of those first 26 games, only three were in Montreal. Two of those crowds were 6,899 and 8,267, letting the Expos know Canada didn't give a damn. In six April games in Puerto Rico, the Expos were 1-5. "No way there were 10,000 people at those games," said Wilkerson. The team played 20 straight days, 26 games in 27  days in seven cities, including a western trip.

"It was like they made the schedule for every other team, then threw us in wherever was left over," said Vidro. "I was back home in Puerto Rico and even I didn't like it. My teammates were mad. Baseball talked like they cared about us, but they didn't."

This may be the week when the full contrast in lifestyles finally hits the new Nationals. Between the end of today's afternoon game and the start of the Mets series Friday night, the Nats have about 48 hours between games. All at home.

"By the end of this homestand it's going to feel like we were home for [18] straight days," says Wilkerson. Why? "Those three [weekend] games in New York felt like we never left home. It's the lightest bag I ever packed -- two slacks, three shirts.

"Two years ago, we played 25 games in 27 days: Montreal, Florida, Philly, Puerto Rico for 10, to Seattle with an off day, Oakland, no off day, Pittsburgh and Montreal. We even won four of six on the West Coast. But by Pittsburgh, we were dead."

How can you remember all of that? "How can you forget?" asked Wilkerson.

Those bitter memories burn into the ex-Expos. From the last weekend of spring training through Opening Day, the Nats played five games in five towns in five days. "They don't want us to forget who we are," said pitcher Zach Day.

So, there are scores to be settled in this new home called Washington. "We [carried] that extra weight so long. We know we're better than people think we are – the so-called experts," Robinson said acerbically. "We have players here who should get some credit when they deserve it. And they haven't."

Instead of starting 5-15, the Nationals began 10-10. But they still sense they're getting shabby Expo Treatment. Vidro, the proudest Expo, the man who could have escaped for huge free agent money but chose to re-sign and stick it out with his teammates, has a lot to get off his chest.

"When do we get an owner? Why does it take so long? They announced ' Washington' before the end of last season. Why is baseball dragging its feet?" Vidro said this week. "Everybody sees how hungry this city is for baseball. This will be a great investment. Get somebody in here who will do what it takes [to win]. Those 45,000 seats will be filled. We need it soon. Get it done before the trade deadline" on July 31.

The trade deadline? That only concerns teams who think they are in the postseason chase. Vidro gets that look he shares with many teammates – happy about the present, curious about the future but still so angry to square up for the past.

"Get us an owner who can get us a couple more key guys," Vidro said, "and this is going to be a great story."

WASHINGTON POST - 30 April 2005



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