In Washington, it's a whole different ballgame

On the cusp of its first big-league baseball game in 34 years, this town is astir over William Kristol's season tickets. In most parts of the known universe, the matter of where one of the foremost architects of neoconservatism is sitting would generally be of less importance than whether the stadium seats have cup holders.

But Thursday night, with the inaugural game of the hometown Nationals, Major League Baseball will officially enter the world of the Washington Beltway, where balls come once every four years and base running is done by the Pentagon.

Historians will say that the game has been here before, when the Senators bumbled their way through seven decades of mediocrity, ending in 1971. But that was a different Washington - a sleepy Southern town not yet transformed by Watergate, CNN, and K Street lobbyists. Now more than ever, politics is pageant, and the Nationals' opening season represents an 81-game gala for the C-SPAN set.

"You can just see, with the jockeying for tickets," says Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia, a season-ticket holder, "it is going to be the place to see and be seen."

For most Americans, perhaps, Representative Davis is no Jack Nicholson courtside at Laker games, and surely the inconspicuous-looking Mr. Kristol will hardly be hounded by autograph seekers in the far reaches of the upper deck. But make no mistake, this is Washington's A-list, and with a team made up largely of no-names on the field, stargazing Nationals fans might be better off buying the most recent copy of the Cook Report than the game-day program.

President Bush will throw the first pitch Thursday night. Rep. Robert Hayes (R) of North Carolina has already booked a suite for a fundraiser during Friday night's game. Davis and fellow Virginia congressman James Moran (D) have season tickets behind home plate. Commentators Paul Begala and Robert Novak are down the first base line, as is columnist George Will. And The New York Times's David Brooks - who shares tickets with Kristol - is "somewhere south of Montreal," as he complained in a column.

"I've never seen this with basketball or hockey" - the other two sports in the district, says Michael Gula of Keelen Communications, a Republican fundraising firm. "There are members [of Congress] who I thought would have tickets by now who are still calling around and asking for tickets."

In truth, the excitement should not be all that surprising. Baseball is, after all, the national pastime, a patriotic act divided into nine innings - and perfectly paced to allow for that most Washington of activities: networking. It is a golf game without all the divots, a business dinner without the bother of silverware and cloth napkins.

"Instead of going out to a bar, we can spend some quality time at a game," Mr. Gula says of his firm's plans to invite lawmakers and their staff to Nationals games this year.

To be sure, the interest is there - and always has been, both for politicians and the general public. Though the district has been bereft of baseball for more than three decades, the game's roots here are as deep as they are in Boston, New York, or St. Louis - and often intertwined with politics. Ninety-five years ago Thursday, the rotund figure of William Howard Taft rose from his seat in old National Park to throw out the first-ever presidential opening day pitch.

Yet, for the most part, the Senators were known as "lovable losers," says Jim Hartley of the Washington Baseball Historical Society, characterized by the comment that Washington was "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League East." From 1901 to 1971, the Senators made it to the World Series only three times. But when they won it in 1924, the city broke into such a frenzy that an awe-struck Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball who had seen Babe Ruth hit 59 homeruns, said: "What you are looking at, could it be the highest point of what we affectionately call our national sport?"

It was certainly the high point for baseball in Washington. The original Senators, renamed the Twins, moved to Minneapolis in 1961. Immediately, they were replaced by a new expansion team, also called the Senators. But within a decade, even the new team was ready to move - to Texas to become the Rangers.

In the end, quipped the son of the owner of the expansion Senators, "the only fans at Senators games were the politicians and the pickpockets - and you couldn't tell the difference."

The politicians, at least, will be back. Nationals home games are only a 15-minute Metro ride from Capitol Hill, and Davis - like many other members and staffers in Congress - is already mapping out the rest of this session's votes to see when he can rush out to RFK Stadium for a game.

"The Capitol is buzzing with it," he says. "There's nothing like having a team right here."

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