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Drama comes full circle for D.C. fans


WASHINGTON - It was as if the city had seen this celebration before. Which, of course, it had.

There were signs around the area yesterday that baseball was returning. Again.

The Washington Nationals team merchandise store was decorated with seasonal garland and red bows. A worker unloaded cardboard boxes of bright-colored "Nationals" apparel from a pickup truck as the outlet stocked up for today's reopening, just in time for Christmas.

For a week, the store, located in a temporary, trailer-like structure adjacent to RFK Stadium, had stood dormant - a sign of Major League Baseball's annoyance with the city over a stadium-funding plan baseball considered inadequate.

It was as if the store, like baseball itself in this town, had been a cruel mirage.

But with yesterday's D.C. Council approval of modified stadium funding, baseball sent a crew to bring the store - and baseball - back to life.

"We came from New York. We set it up, we broke it down and now we're setting it back up again," said one of the workers, who declined to give her name.

Nearby, the $18.5 million renovation of RFK Stadium could accelerate now that funding had been endorsed. The team will play at the stadium, the 43-year-old former home of the Washington Senators, while a new stadium is constructed in southeast Washington.

RFK's face lift is still in the design phase. In the next few days, the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission expects to shift the stadium from a soccer configuration to a baseball orientation. That will involve moving 8,000 seats that rest on a track.

"We'll move the sliding seats back and forth to see how they function," said Troy Scott, the stadium manager. "The last time we physically moved them was 1999 for an exhibition game."

The Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, will play their first home game on April 14, but the city is shooting to complete the renovation by April 8 so it doesn't creep too close to the game.

Washington last hosted a major league game that counted in 1971.

City leaders staged a loud celebration when baseball announced on Sept. 29 that the city had been selected as the home for the Expos, who suffered from poor attendance. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. Council members donned red caps and sang, "Take Me out to the Ballgame."

But the celebrating stopped when Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp initially declined to put the half-billion-dollar stadium bill on the agenda as expected last month because she considered the measure too costly. Then, a week ago, she won approval for an amendment mandating at least half private financing. Her amendment placed baseball's return in limbo until it was altered yesterday.

Some area residents said yesterday they had become anxious about baseball's on-again, off-again status.

Ron Brenner, a fan from Potomac, said he regularly attends Orioles games at Camden Yards but is excited about having a more local option.

"We figured baseball had been snatched away from us twice already, and once more [it] was going to be, 'Three strikes, you're out,'" Brenner said. "They never would have come back."

Said Brenner: "We haven't had baseball in 33 years. It's time."

Washington fans' jitters are understandable considering the sport's history here. Many fans remember hearing how the Houston Astros were going to be moved to the city eight years ago, or how the San Diego Padres were supposedly coming a dozen years before that.

Still, more than 16,000 fans had put aside their anxiety in recent weeks and submitted deposits for full Nationals season tickets. Baseball gave the fans the option of seeking refunds when the team was in limbo, but the vast majority rode out the storm.

A week ago, several Nationals players had been scheduled to unveil the team's uniforms at the downtown ESPNZone. The event fell victim to the funding flap.

Rather than reschedule the event now, the team decided yesterday to simply tell its fans what the uniforms will look like. Perhaps it figured those fans had already waited long enough to find out.

The home jersey will be white, with red and blue piping at the collar and neck. The word "Nationals" will arc across the front in red.

The gray road jersey will feature "Washington" in navy.

The team will resume accepting season-ticket deposits today.

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