Washington Nationals - hope out of controversy?

For months I followed the story of baseball's return to Washington, D.C., with mixed emotions. Having played baseball for 15 years and being in my eighth year of coaching Babe Ruth and Little League teenagers, I could be considered a serious fan. Of course I wanted Major League Baseball back in the District after 34 years without it - but not at the expense of a high-priced stadium deal that might deprive Washington's depressed neighborhoods of more important programs for schools and youth, and certainly not as a hostage of what many perceived to be Major League Baseball's arrogant demands.

But the City Council approved the new stadium package and opening day at the old RFK Stadium arrived Thursday. Even though my feelings about the stadium deal had mellowed, I had no plans to attend. No plans, that is, until an hour-and-half before game time when, suddenly, I felt I heard the call of that lonely ticket with my name on it. I jumped in my car and headed for the stadium. My success at such spontaneity in the past is legendary among family and friends. When I came to D.C. many years ago, my goal was to experience Washington history - and I've found myself in the presence of several presidents at different ceremonies. I've been to assorted marches and openings and even a long-ago parade for the Super Bowl winners - the Redskins.

So that late afternoon of the Washington Nationals' home opener began to feel like one of those events I shouldn't miss. The "what ifs" - especially on a tight budget - are what give spontaneity its excitement. Yet I've learned to follow my intuition - if it's right, I'll be there. What's there to lose, a 10-minute drive home?

Standing outside the Metro, throngs filed past me as I shyly held up one finger, quietly repeating, "I need one ticket, anyone got one ticket?" Occasionally I'd catch a sympathetic "Sorry!" glance. But most were so focused on the long security lines and getting in to see President Bush throw out the "first pitch" that I was invisible.

After 10 unsuccessful minutes, a young policewoman appeared at my side, smiled, and said, "Tickets are not to be bought or sold here, so since you are not doing either maybe you would like to move along." I smiled back, thanked her, and did just that.

But not far along. Across the rush of humanity, my trained eye spotted a group of African-American teens huddled around several adults who were handing them tickets. I knew this might be the place to find an extra one. Sure enough, one youth hadn't shown up and one of the adults offered it to me free. As I walked away a little stunned, I heard the adult in charge say, "What! You gave it to him?"

Feeling guilty, I returned and offered to pay for it. The group leader smiled and said that wasn't really necessary. He told me this was a group of 13-to 15-year-old Little Leaguers and he was their coach, Mike McManus. I told Mike that I helped coach a team the same age just across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Va., and gave him a donation for the team.

A bond quickly began to build between us as we walked toward the stadium talking about a possible practice game between our teams. Just outside the gates we ran into the father of the only white player on his team, a 6'10" on-duty D.C. policeman. He happily escorted us to a fenced area where three policemen took the group - of which I was now conveniently a member - to the head of the 50-yard line at the metal detectors set up because of President Bush's presence. On the other side, Mike smiled at me and said, "You really lucked out on this one." Grinning with embarrassment, I almost agreed - but this didn't feel like coincidence.

Once in, I told Mike I'd catch up with them. I found my way to a spot 15 rows behind home plate to take photos of the president's first pitch. Then I wound my way past the wealth and the dignitaries up to the team's seats in the last row of the upper deck in dead-center-field. I enjoyed the game and listened to Mike's stories of the Satchel Paige Little League in the lower-income, black Northeast quadrant of D.C.

Interest in baseball among young African-Americans has dwindled here - the "national pastime" really hasn't been the inner-city's pastime, what with no major-league team here and the rise of pro basketball's black heroes. Yet this dedicated group of coaches continues to do all it can to promote the game to inner-city kids - and their league by-laws stipulate that every team be named after a Negro League team.

Mike told me he's in constant fundraising mode, looking for opportunities for his kids, some of whom have very difficult personal circumstances. For some, this was their first pro baseball game - the nearest major-league team plays 30 miles up the road in Baltimore.

This afternoon at RFK suddenly was more than just baseball's return to the capital, but possibly a renewed opportunity to encourage young African-Americans to play the game, to be inspired, and to find hope in dealing with difficult circumstances. Suddenly, for me, this team became less a community controversy and more about possibility for the young people I work with and care about. And what better place for me to witness this than in the top row of the upper deck in dead-center-field, and in the very neighborhood of the young men and dedicated coaches who deserved to see it most?

Chuck Wattles, a Little League coach in Alexandria, Va., is a longtime consultant to social programs for low-income families and youth and is on the board of Shaw EcoVillage, a youth development organization in Washington.

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