Baseball: Politics take back seat as Nationals give American capital reasons to be cheerful

Even the president pitched in to celebrate baseball's return to home base

Who cares about the latest dingy lobbying scandal on Capitol Hill, the songs George W Bush has on his iPod, or whether Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2008? Right now only one thing matters in the capital of the free world - the reality-defying return of its baseball team.

Who cares about the latest dingy lobbying scandal on Capitol Hill, the songs George W Bush has on his iPod, or whether Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2008? Right now only one thing matters in the capital of the free world - the reality-defying return of its baseball team.

The start of the 2005 season was always going to be intriguing, unfolding in the shadow of steroids, baseball's worst scandal since the thrown 1919 World Series. But no part of the early plot has been more intriguing than the arrival of the Washington Nationals.

Once they were the nomadic, abject Montreal Expos, a franchise without fans, forced to play a quarter of their home games in Puerto Rico. One year later, the rechristened, relocated team sits atop the National League East. Is this, we ask, for real? The last week has been too good to be true. After three tough road series to begin the season, the Nats - everyone's pick for last place - came to Washington for their home opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks with a winning record. The city stopped in its tracks for the occasion. The president was throwing out the first pitch. The stage could not have been more perfectly set for massive anti-climax. And what happens? The Nats stage a three-game sweep, over three balmy and cloudless spring days.

For Washingtonians, this is a sporting moment to die for. The usually woeful basketball Wizards are in the play-offs for the first time in a decade, even the NHL's hopeless Capitals have gone through a season unbeaten (thanks to the fact there was no hockey season at all). But best of all, by far, is the return of baseball here after 34 years.

The history of baseball in the capital is dismal. True, the old Senators did win a World Series (in 1924), but thereafter were lousy enough to inspire the hoary joke of how Washington was "first in peace, first in war, but last in the American League". The Senators' final home game in September 1971 was marked by a fan riot, and for years it seemed Washington would never have a team again - not least because of the opposition of the Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, 40 miles up the road, fearful his attendances would plunge if a rival set up shop so close. But all that is in the past. The Nats are in the National, not the American, League, and not last, but first.

Not everything is perfect, starting with that Washington red home cap and its curly "W" logo - not quite the message of choice from a city which voted 90 per cent for John Kerry in last November's election. The caps everyone wants right now are fashionably pre-faded ones with a white "DC" on the front.

But the irritation is tiny, compared to the joy of having a team again. To locals, it was always insulting that the nation's capital was deprived of the sport that most symbolises the nation, when upstarts like Tampa Bay and Milwaukee had teams. Over the past decade, baseball's absence became an economic absurdity, as DC changed from crime-ridden, racially-polarised sinkhole into the hub of the sixth largest, and wealthiest per capita metro area in the country.

When relocation of the Montreal Expos became inevitable, even the redoubtable and hugely wealthy trial lawyer Angelos could not prevent it.

The opening of the baseball season is always about rebirth. This April 2005 in Washington has been about baseball, but also about the rebirth of a city.

The happy mood here has spread throughout the sport. The steroids scandal that dominated the off-season has been forgotten - at least until the Balco trial starts sometime later this year, and Barry Bonds dons a San Francisco Giants uniform to resume his chase for Hank Aaron's career home run record.

Even cantankerous Yankee fans seem to have forgiven their slugger Jason Giambi for the transgressions with "the clear" and "the cream" he admitted when testifying to the Balco grand jury last year.

Reality, naturally, will not be suspended forever. Baseball seasons last six months, not two weeks; the Nationals have spirit and grit, but not the depth to prevail over 162 games. Despite dropping a three-game series to the Nationals last week, the Atlanta Braves are favourites to win the NL East.

In the American League by contrast, things look wide open. Neither the New York Yankees nor the Boston Red Sox have started the season well.

The Yankees' weakness is their highly paid but elderly and physically suspect pitching rotation led by Randy Johnson, 42 in September, while Boston have not really replaced their departed ace Pedro Martinez.

This could be the year for an outsider to win the AL championship, a well-managed low budget outfit like the Oakland Athletics or the Minnesota Twins - even the Orioles, if a young pitching rotation can rise to the occasion, to complement arguably the most potent hitting line-up in either league.

Like the Nationals, the O's currently top their division, having just swept the mighty Yankees, no less. In these early days, every fantasy is permitted. So why not the Baltimore-Washington Parkway World Series, pitting the team that wasn't meant to be against the team that never wanted it to be?

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