Fan club for Nats keeps faith

The Baltimore Sun

Washington -- There was an unspoiled, throwback quality to a recent meeting at a hotel coffee shop of a dozen Washington Nationals fans, most wearing the red of their beloved last-place team.

It was the monthly gathering of the Nats Fan Club, a group characterized by pluck and devotion.

In an age in which many traditional baseball fan clubs have been replaced by snarky, Web-based forums or team-sponsored marketing tools, the independent Nats Fan Club is different. Its 160 members, who pay $20 a year in dues, are the opposite of jaded.

After enduring various portions of 33 years without baseball before the Nationals arrived from Montreal in 2005, these aficionados are smitten with the sport and their team.

Never mind that Washington was almost universally picked to finish last in the National League East, and that a team critic created a blog to track potentially "the worst team in the history of baseball."

The team, which is home for six games leading up to Tuesday's All-Star Game, has performed better than expected but is still at the bottom of the division.

Even the franchise's management has conceded the team is building for the future.

The Nats Fan Club members decided to hop on the bandwagon a few stops before the rest of the crowd.

"We're keeping the candle lit," said club president Colin Mills, 28, an administrative assistant for an engineering firm who believes it builds character to stand by a losing team.

"It's easy to show up when the team is winning and it's the social event of the season, but I feel good that I was there during the leaner years."

Mills recalls a May night game against the Florida Marlins in which fewer than 1,000 fans stuck around through a pair of rain delays.

"I thought, 'These are the hardest of the hardcore,' " Mills said. "And that's sort of how we feel all the time."

Mills, of Reston, Va., helped found the club before the 2005 season along with a half-dozen others who had been participating in a message board about baseball's impending arrival to Washington.

On the night it became official, Mills and the group found themselves drinking at a downtown bar.

"We had the night of a hundred toasts, lifting our glasses to anybody who had anything to do with Washington baseball including [former Washington Senators pitcher] Walter Johnson and former Mayor [Anthony] Williams," Mills said.

Out of the alcohol and excitement came the fan club, whose members organize tailgates and march in local parades.

The club members include Allen Knotts, a retired NASA budget analyst from Bowie who says he spent his entire government career without a team he could call his own.

"I am so in love with the sport and having 'Washington' on the jerseys that they almost never have to win a game to satisfy me," Knotts said.

Just as Baltimore emotionally hung onto the NFL's Colts long after the franchise's 1984 move, many Washingtonians' baseball memories involve the Senators. The club moved to Texas after the 1971 season.

Like Knotts, Barbara Angelino, a part-time technology instructor from Boyds, says she has a visceral reaction when she walks into 46-year-old RFK Stadium and remembers attending games there as a kid.

"It makes me feel like a little girl again, like I should look over my shoulder and see my mother," Angelino, 50, said. She said she hasn't missed a pitch this season on television or at the stadium.

Some fan club members once rooted for the Orioles, and some still consider them their favorite American League team.

But Mills said some remain angry at Orioles owner Peter Angelos for opposing Washington's bid for a team because of concern that the region couldn't support two ballclubs.

The Orioles don't have "an official fan club," said team spokesman Bill Stetka. "We have the Oriole Advocates, which is a group of business people that do community functions, and we have marketing tools like the Birdwatchers Club and the Junior Orioles Dugout Club," he said.

The Nats Fan Club isn't affiliated with the team, although that may soon change. Chartese Burnett, a Nationals vice president, has met with Mills and Knotts, the club's treasurer, to discuss the possibility of an "official" designation. That could aid the club by providing it with, among other things, a link from the team's Web site.

In a sense, the club members' bonds may have been strengthened by a shared sense that Major League Baseball treated Washington shabbily, making it wait decades for a team.

Said Knotts: "Baseball came here [to Washington] when it had nowhere else to go."

But now, Knotts and the other club members happily watch their work-in-progress team and await the opening of a new stadium next year on the Anacostia River waterfront. The stadium is expected to boost attendance, which has been slipping the past couple of seasons.

The fan club is paying homage to the new stadium in its own way.

Along with the club's thanks, guest speakers at the monthly meetings are presented thimble-sized containers of sand from the stadium's May 2006 ground-breaking ceremony.

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