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Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announces that the Washington Nationals have selected San Diego State University pitcher Stephen Strasburg as the No. 1 overall pick in the baseball draft at MLB Network Studios in Secaucus, N.J., Tuesday, June 9, 2009. (Rich Schultz)
Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announces that the Washington Nationals have selected San Diego State University pitcher Stephen Strasburg as the No. 1 overall pick in the baseball draft at MLB Network Studios in Secaucus, N.J., Tuesday, June 9, 2009. (Rich Schultz)

Jeff Blair

The worst team in baseball Add to ...

Outside Nationals Park, there's a statue of legendary Washington Senators pitcher Walter (Big Train) Johnson. What was meant as a signature piece is so Trainspotting acid-trip awful - the artists call it "repetitive motion" but to most people it makes Johnson look like an octopus - that his grandson Henry Thomas won't set foot in the ballpark. We're talking serious jinx stuff, here.

The park itself is just two years old, but so nondescript it could be plopped into Minneapolis or Cincinnati or Cleveland. Not in Montreal, though. Montreal would have done it with far more flair.

But for Major League Baseball, the Washington Nationals aren't the Expos - and that's good enough. It's no matter that the team ranks 24th in attendance, is last overall in the combined American and National League standings, and is tainted by scandal. Former general manager Jim Bowden resigned in March amid allegations of money being skimmed off signing bonuses paid to Latin American players.

When interleague play meant something north of the border, the Expos would often play the Toronto Blue Jays on Canada Day. Instead, the Tampa Bay Rays are playing an afternoon game at the Rogers Centre. In baseball's New York City offices though, there is no pining for Nos Amours.

"It wasn't easy for baseball to move the Expos," said Robert DuPuy, president and chief financial officer of Major League Baseball. "But we had no choice. I remember being there when [former Expos president]Claude Brochu unveiled plans for a ballpark at a news conference at Central Station. It was beautiful. It was a great concept. Everybody was excited … but after a while, you know, it was just like beating your head against a wall."

A huge chunk of commissioner Bud Selig's legacy is riding on the Nationals succeeding in a city that has already buried one franchise, the Senators, in 1971. Club president and part-owner Stan Kasten is adamant that baseball's second coming in "the most important city in the world" will work out in the long run.

"Modern-day baseball fans don't remember that Atlanta was once thought of as a laughingstock," said Kasten, who built the Atlanta Braves into a perennial power on the moxie of manager Bobby Cox and the arms of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. "Everybody said it wasn't a baseball city. It came to be the gold standard for franchises. I assure you when the corner is turned here, nobody will remember the bad times."

In Washington he is trying to follow the familiar blueprint by building a rotation: Jordan Zimmermann and Ross Detwiler are 23-year-old pitchers of immense promise, as is 22-year-old Shairon Martis. No.1 pick Stephen Strasburg is soon to be signed.

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"We said we would build this through player development focusing on pitching," Kasten said during a recent game, as Detwiler shackled the Blue Jays. "You can buy a pitcher, but you can't buy a rotation. You have to grow a rotation. Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine took their lumps when they started out. There are no shortcuts when you do what we're doing."

Meantime, the times are bad. Really bad.

The Nationals are second only to the Oakland Athletics in games started by rookies, with 43. The number of starts by rookies has increased each year since the Expos moved to D.C., from three in 2005 to 36 in 2006, 54 in 2007 and 55 in 2008.

The economic downturn suffocated the real estate development that was supposed to spring up around the 41,888-seat park. Serving fans in the immediate area of the stadium now, there's just a seedy liquor store and a tented faux-tailgate area. Instead, fans are ferried by a golf cart to a nearby neighbourhood, Barracks Row, where they can get a drink and a postgame meal. On foot, it is 20 minutes away from the ballpark.

Major League Baseball purchased the Expos in 2002 and moved the team to Washington in 2004, before selling it to the family of real estate billionaire Ted Lerner for $450-million. A source with knowledge of the transaction with Lerner wonders if baseball isn't second-guessing itself right now.

The elder Lerner is fond of telling stories about working as an usher at Senators games at Griffiths Stadium. Lerner Enterprises is the largest private real estate development company in metropolitan Washington. His wife and a son and daughter and their spouses are all listed as principal owners while Kasten is one of the founding partners in a group that touches all the politically correct bases. Lerner was awarded the team ahead of groups fronted by Jeffrey Smulyan, a former Seattle Mariners owner, and another fronted by Fred Malek, a Republican politico who was with a group called Washington Baseball Club that worked for years both publicly and behind the scenes to get baseball back in the capital.

"I think the Lerners' experience with real estate actually gave them a false sense of security," the source said. "In fact, part of the issue is that all along they viewed this as a compelling real estate venture. And when they did get the team, they got a bad case of 'new owner-itis.' That's where you think you know everything. They thought they knew everything. They didn't."

The D.C. government put nearly $700-million into building Nationals Park, which is in the southeast part of the city on both sides of the Anacostia River. Approximately $2-billion worth of commercial real estate was gobbled up once the planned park was made public, with 16 office complexes and condominiums built in a frenzy in which derelict fast-foot franchises were bought out at a cost of as much as $125 a square foot, according to the Washington Post. Then the boom went bust, and the Post reported earlier this year that one developer of a 75-unit townhouse complex was selling as few as two units a month.

"The ballpark is built, and that's a great asset," DuPuy said. "It's true commercial development of the area has been slower than expected. But as the economy revives, we think we're going to see development."

The same source that wonders about the Lerners also wonders if the Nationals aren't falling into the same pattern as the Pirates.

"Teams that had success with new ballparks all, for the most part, had competitive teams in place when they moved in," said the source. "Pittsburgh's an example of what happens when you have a new park without a good product. People think all you have to do is build it and they will come. Not true."

Kasten believes the Lerners bring a long-term boon, not a negative.

"Look," he said with a sigh, "when we got here there was very, very little in the pipeline. But that's ancient history. Baseball's mission when it owned this team was to get a property ready for sale and the best way to do that was to try and make the product attractive. They couldn't think long-term like we can. They were doing a different job."

Kasten, who rubbishes rumours that he was a candidate to become the Blue Jays full-time president and chief executive officer, says the crowds that come out whenever the Boston Red Sox play an interleague game has him convinced that the Nationals "will be a monster.

"Everything's in place to take advantage of a good product," he says. "Now, we have to deliver the product."

That's something baseball could never say in Montreal. So, yes, it is a shame that we aren't celebrating Canada Day with the Blue Jays and Expos. But nobody's much crying. Baseball is back in D.C., and so far it's better than the alternative, even if the ride has been far from smooth.

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