Eager D.C. fans revel in virtual team

The Nationals take the field at Washington's RFK stadium in this screenshot from "MVP Baseball 2005."
The Nationals take the field at Washington's RFK stadium in this screenshot from "MVP Baseball 2005."EA Sports
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Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium was filled with crowds and sunlight. Pitcher Livan Hernandez was on the mound. And all around the diamond, players wearing Washington's pretzel-shaped "W" on their caps stood ready for action.

For Colin Mills, president of the newly formed Washington Nationals fan club, it was a scene with Christmas-morning electricity. "It was just like a live wire going through my body," he said, remembering it recently.

The emotions were authentic. Only the game was virtual.

Baseball will not be played at RFK until next month. Mills got his Opening Day feeling from playing a video game, EA Sports's "MVP Baseball 2005." Electronic games such as that one have become an essential part of sports fans' lives, even replacing trading cards as the main prop of baseball fantasy for some.

Now, the trend has come to Washington with the arrival of the Nationals. The appearance of the virtual Nats was as big a thrill for such fans as Brian Rainey as anything the actual players have done. "No one pays attention to spring training," said Rainey, 23, after a recent fan club meeting. "A lot of people get the [video] game."

Washington's last baseball team, the Senators, left for Texas after the 1971 season. In the decades since, D.C. baseball fans have had it almost as bad in the video-game world as in life.

In the 1980s, when some primitive electronic baseball games did not feature Major League teams and players, one game had a fictional "Washington" squad full of political names. Mills, 26, remembered that the leadoff hitter was "Abzug" — named after former New York Rep. Bella Abzug — and the pitching staff was stocked with former presidents and vice presidents.

"Agnew was a relief pitcher," Mills said. Perhaps not surprisingly, the team was bad.

Video games advanced to include real players and accurately rendered stadiums. Sales have climbed from more than 1.6 million baseball games in 2000 to more than 2.5 million games last year, according to the NPD Group, a New York-based market research firm.

But as the games gained realism and popularity, Washington fans who had not adopted the Baltimore Orioles or another team were out of luck.

They could play their virtual games in such circular, concrete parks as Pittsburgh's old Three Rivers Stadium, which had some resemblance to RFK. In later years, some games allowed users to create an expansion team for Washington.

But the feeling wasn't the same.

"It's kind of like watching a love story in a movie," said Robert Ainsworth, 27, of the District. "If you don't have a girlfriend or wife to watch it with, you can care less."

Last fall, after it was announced that the Montreal Expos would move to Washington for the 2005 season, game designers had to scramble to create their virtual versions of RFK Stadium and the Nationals' uniforms.

Games that feature Major League teams, stadiums and players, capturing such details as facial features and uniform patches, include the EA title and ESPN's "Major League Baseball 2K5," with prices from about $20 to $30. There's also a breed of computer games with less intensive graphics, such as "Out of the Park Baseball," that allow players to control a team's front-office functions instead of playing the game.

Basil Tsimpris, 28, a lawyer in Richmond, bought "MVP Baseball 2005" and immediately started playing with the Nats on his Sony PlayStation 2. After a few moments of button-pushing, a digital likeness of leadoff hitter Brad Wilkerson walked up to the virtual plate.

"There was a sense that this is a real team now," Tsimpris said. "There is something real in ... watching a non-real computer player stride to the plate with the name of Wilkerson on the back of his jersey."

Dave Lanham, 41, a baseball fan in Prince Frederick, said he was stunned to see that the video game had re-created RFK Stadium's distinctive wavy roofline. To him, it was as convincing a sign of baseball's return as the proliferation of Nationals caps in stores.

"Yeah, we're back. We're back in the virtual world, I mean," Lanham said. "We've arrived."

The EA Sports game allows players to resurrect the uniforms of the Washington Senators and put them on modern-day players, as well as play games in Washington's long-demolished Griffith Stadium.

Many fans say they have looked to these electronic games as a way to predict how the Nationals will perform. So far, however, there's no consensus: In one game, the team is awful; in another, it's a division-leading contender.

The reason is usually that the electronic Nats are only as good as the gamers controlling them. For instance, Tsimpris said, he's unsure whether to blame the team's first baseman for his poor electronic play.

"Nick Johnson looks completely inept in this game. I just can't hit with him at all," Tsimpris said. "Maybe it's just me."

This spring, players of the video game even include some younger members of the Nationals, such as pitchers Joe Horgan and Chad Cordero. But these two don't play the modern games that contain digital versions of themselves in Nats gear.

Instead, they prefer RBI Baseball, a Nintendo classic from the 1980s that features pixelated little cartoon players.

"It's old school," said Cordero, 22. "I've got the new games, but we like the old one better."

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.