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Expos 'change up' to Nationals


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Orlando Sentinel



Gil Crook, who works for Brevard County, surveys to align the lights at Space Coast Stadium. The Washington Nationals play their first spring-training game in Viera against the New York Mets on March 2.



Expos 'change up' to Nationals

Fans may be asking `red, white & who?'


By Andrew B. Carter | Sentinel Staff Writer

Posted February 12, 2005



VIERA -- Past the endless rows of stucco-framed homes and manicured lawns, beyond the bulldozed fields awaiting construction, across the street from the soon-to-be high school and nestled beside fields adorned with cows and rolls of straw, a ballpark is in transition.


Construction workers and maintenance crews bustle inside and around Space Coast Stadium. The preparations nearly are complete. Gone are Montreal Expos banners that once hung from the light poles outside and from steel beams within. The outfield fence, which once featured rows of pictures of Montreal players, is bare. The interior walls also are bare, the pile of Expos moments and memories now sitting in a heap, witnesses to workers adding fresh paint and new logos, each brush stroke further erasing a forgotten franchise.


The buzz, the anticipation, the mood at Space Coast is palpable on a cloudy February day. The Expos, who made the 8,100-seat facility their home the past two springs, are gone. They have a new home and a new name. The Washington Nationals begin their season in less than two months, and when they host the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 14 at RFK Stadium, baseball officially will be back in the nation's capital for the first time in 34 years.


The official journey begins in Viera, where, despite the Expos' 67-95 record last season, a surprising amount of hope exists.


"There's always excitement going into a season for every team in baseball," Nationals spokesman John Dever said. "But this year there's something different, special about it."


Never mind that the Expos scored the second-fewest runs in the majors last season. Forget the questions surrounding a franchise that currently operates without an owner. Disregard that Washington will compete in the National League East, arguably the toughest division in baseball. The challenges matter little, especially for a team once on the brink of extinction.


Maybe that's why there's so much promise surrounding the Nationals this spring: The franchise has survived. And not only survived, but bettered itself in the process. The club went from a region where few cared about baseball to one that has been thirsting for a team since the Senators left the nation's capital and became the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season.


Baseball-starved Washington will have few qualms, too, about welcoming an organization that has been among the most futile in baseball. The Expos endured losing records for their first 10 seasons and lost more than they won in 20 of their 36 seasons in Montreal. The team reached the playoffs just once -- losing in five games to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981 -- and the 1994 strike ended its best season in history.


After the strike, disgruntled fans slowly trickled back to baseball, but they never returned in Montreal. Playing in one of the worst stadiums in the game, the Expos didn't average more than 20,000 fans at Olympic Stadium after 1994. The team ranked last in National League attendance for seven consecutive seasons until moving to Washington, where interest is high.


"It never made sense to me," said Lars Thorn, a third-generation Washingtonian who grew up a baseball fan and now works for the Nationals. "It hit me when I was about 7 years old that all these teams around the country and all these kids around the country got to have a hometown baseball team. And it just never made sense that here I live in the nation's capital and wasn't able to have a hometown team."


Imagine how the Expos felt in recent years: playing "home" games in Puerto Rico, always playing in stadiums far more crowded than their own, hearing cheers for the home team far louder than any ovation they received, experiencing an atmosphere for which they only could wish or imagine.


"It was very disappointing because we were guys who would play hard out there, and we saw no response from the fans," said second baseman Jose Vidro, who reported to Viera early in efforts to recover from knee surgery. "But at the same time, we're professionals. We went down there on the field, we enjoyed what we were doing and forgot about the rest of the stuff that was going around.


"After the game is when we would sit and think about it like, 'Man, something's got to be wrong. There's no fans.'"


That's not the case anymore. Fans in Washington are strolling historic streets with a fresh cap: red, with a white, cursive "W." In Viera, the Space Coast Stadium gift shop constantly takes orders for Nationals gear, which arrives daily and is purchased with vigor. Even the Expos' stuff is popular, the blue-and-white shirts and hats fodder for memorabilia collectors and those few lingering Expos fans.


Anticipation also has morphed into ticket sales and attention. When pitchers and catchers report Tuesday, Dever expects to deal with a swarm of national media requests.


"We're going to be one of the biggest stories in baseball this spring," he said.


On the first day of spring-training sales last season, the Expos sold 600 tickets for their opening game at Space Coast Stadium. Within the first 15 minutes of sales this season, the Nationals sold 1,500 for their March 2 opener against the Mets, a game that will be televised by ESPN.


The requests and preparations have kept the local stadium staff busy. Jeff Weinhold is the Nationals' director of ticket operations for spring training and the public-relations director for the Class A Brevard County Manatees, a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate that also plays at Space Coast Stadium. He is one of many workers based in Viera who ended his offseason early. Typically, at the conclusion of the minor-league season in early September, the Manatees' staff relaxes until January.


"But this year, in November, we were all juiced up and ready to go for spring training," Weinhold said. "Normally when you hit Jan. 1 is when you start getting everything rolling, but this year it was much earlier."


Some of those preparations are ongoing. Elevators within the stadium wear fresh coats of paint and bright colors -- red, white and blue -- that mix to form Washington's new logo. But the banners have yet to arrive and the outfield wall is black, waiting to be covered in the new colors. Buck Rogers, an energetic ex-military man who is the Nationals' director of Florida operations, has been responsible for many of the changes.


In his second year in Viera, Rogers feels a baseball frenzy within the town, which also will be home to the Nationals' affiliate in the Gulf Coast League.


"This is Viera, population 14,500," Rogers said in a husky, barking voice. "Is there another city that small that hosts major-league spring training? Here's a town that has major-league spring training and two minor-league baseball teams, population less than 15 grand, and you're not going to embrace that? The people down here realize, hey, we've got something special here."


Rogers paused for a moment, then responded to a recent Washington Post column that questioned conducting spring training in Viera. "Tony Kornheiser was talking about Viera, what's a Viera, what's that named after?" Rogers says. "You're going to find out. You're going to find out what Viera is about real soon. Welcome to the neighborhood."


The Nationals certainly feel welcome -- far more than the Expos ever did.


"Don't get me wrong, I loved all my years in Montreal. Everyone says how much fun it is, how much I loved being there," Vidro said. "But I got the feeling that things are going to be a lot better this year. And a lot different this year, too."


Some things -- the mood, the feeling -- already are.


Andrew B. Carter can be reached at [email protected].

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