Adoration for this team comes from left and right

The Washington Nationals are this year's Cinderella team - and a rare uniter in the capital.

Hanging off RFK stadium, the temporary home of Major League Baseball's newest team, the Washington Nationals, a banner imprinted with "Go Nats!" is styled like a Washington, D.C., vanity license plate.

Underneath the city's triple stars and stripes motif is the slogan stamped on real capital plates: "Taxation without representation." And that's as sure a sign as any the Nationals are now accepted as the home team - they've become a statement, specifically on D.C.'s lack of representation in Congress, long the defining local political movement here.

It may seem odd that sports and politics colluded so quickly during the team's four-month stint, but this is Washington, a city that loves both. The Nationals reinaugurated capital baseball this April, 34 years after the Washington Senators fled town. The new team lost its first game, but it was a burp of a start for a team that has since, against all expectations, risen to the top of the National League East. Recent losses haven't squelched hopes that the Nats may be the season's Cinderella Story.

Instant fan clubs

Now the controversies surrounding the team's arrival - the usual debates over stadium funding, game-day congestion, etc. - have given way to unabashed adoration for a starting lineup that, a year earlier, took the field in Montreal with announcements in French.

For Colin Mills, who works in the bedroom suburbs of northern Virginia, it didn't matter that in 2004 neither he nor anyone had ever seen the Nationals play. The sheer prospect of a D.C. team was enough to make him become president of the Nats Fan Club.

"It was just such an exciting day," he says of the press conference where Major League Baseball formally announced the team was coming to town. "You had that Christmas morning kind of experience, and seven of us ... must have raised 100 toasts that night to anybody that had anything to do with Washington baseball."

Major League sales

Since then the rest of the D.C. area, which encompasses the capital, Virginia's burbs and swaths of Maryland, has jumped on the bandwagon. The team has already sold more than 1.3 million tickets and projects a profit of at least $20 million. As the Expos, by contrast, the team pulled 750,000 fans and ran a $10 million deficit last year.

And it all comes at a time when this city, once identified with crack-addict mayors, housing projects, and bureaucrats, has become known as a place that attracts talented young professionals to a classy dining and nightlife scene.

Bridging capital divides

That said, fans insist game crowds represent all of the capital area's diverse walks of life: working-class blacks from southeast D.C., Salvadoran immigrants from Maryland, and SUV-driving yuppies from northern Virginia.

And of course, people who work for the government.

"I think many transients who have just come to the D.C. area have found an identity with the Nationals, because that gives them a sense that they're home," says Jeff Mascott, who hosts Standpoint, a Washington-area sports blog.

In a city where an intern for the conservative Heritage Foundation may share a summer sublet with a Green party staffer from Vermont, everyone needs something to agree on.

In a city where tensions often emerge from gaps in race, income, or politics, the role of bridging divides has long fallen to sport.

"It gives people who wouldn't ordinarily have a whole lot in common or anything to discuss something that unites them. That's a good thing, even if you can't put a dollar amount on it," says Chris Needham, who runs Capitol Punishment, a Nats fan site.

Still, in Washington, even sport can't always trump politics. Potential bidders for the team's ownership have already sparked rhetorical venom in congressional committees. When local businessman Jonathan Ledecky entered a bidding alliance with billionaire George Soros, an outspoken critic of President Bush, Rep. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia made a Godfather-like threat about ending Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption.

A parkway series ... someday?

But what's potentially more divisive than any political debate is the split the Nats have brought to Maryland baseball fans, where loyalties to the Baltimore Orioles run fierce.

"I don't think hard-core O's fans hate the Nats, but I do think they view the Nats as upstarts. I know I do," says Christian Hiteshew, who runs Marylandsportsfans.com.

It's a tale of two cities: the working-class harbor versus the refined capital, and the former revels in its scruffy pride. For years after the Senators left, Washingtonians drove up the road for Orioles games. Traffic didn't necessarily go in two directions when Baltimore didn't have a football team. "When the Colts left, nobody in Baltimore started rooting for the Redskins," says Mr. Mascott.

He adds that the possibility of a Parkway Series - the Baltimore-Washington Parkway directly links Camden Yards to RFK Stadium - is "awesome." It may lack the crosstown vitriol of a New York "Subway Series." But the possibility of a Washington-Baltimore showdown sends shivers up the spines of locals who, for decades, juggled D.C. football with Baltimore baseball.

But Mr. Mills isn't letting his imagination go wild. What he calls "the season of miracles" has been exciting enough.

"Just getting a team was great, but if that was Christmas and you got your bike, having a first-place team is like getting the car you never even dreamed of. If we keep going to the playoffs, this city will just go nuts."

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