When the Washington Nationals play their home opener at R.F.K. Stadium this week, it will be the first regular-season major league game in the nation's capital since 1971. It also will be the first at-bat for a team trying to score with a demographic that has largely turned away from baseball. Just 8.7% of baseball fans nationwide last year, as measured by Simmons Market Research Bureau, were black--which mirrors the sport's racial makeup: 9% of last season's major leaguers were black, the fewest in 20 years, according to a University of Central Florida study. Baseball's back in D.C., but to endure in a city that is 60% African American, the Nats need to do what the sport has not--bring blacks back to baseball.
Team officials are facing the challenge. "We have to do an awful lot of work in the black community," says manager Frank Robinson, the former slugger who was the first black major league skipper. He plans to visit schools, YMCAs and business leaders to hype baseball. The Nationals have set up a foundation to promote and fund baseball and mentoring in inner-city areas. The contract that brought the team to Washington even stipulates that the Nationals engage with the community and offer free tickets to city kids. "The key for the Nats is to integrate themselves into the social fabric of the city, not just the rich, white suburbanites," says Brad Snyder, who wrote Beyond the Shadow of the Senators, a book about baseball and race in Washington. Mayor Anthony Williams hopes jobs created by the building of a new stadium will also help boost community support. The city has, at least, a historic love of the game. Black fans in the '20s, though forced into segregated stands, turned out in droves for the Senators, and later for the Homestead Grays, who won eight Negro National League titles in nine years from 1937 to 1945--which led many fans to lobby to name the new team the Grays. Says Williams: "I'm hoping we can still find a way to celebrate the forgotten tradition of baseball in D.C." --By Jeninne Lee-St. John