PHOENIX -- Taking a cue from Congress, which left town for a week in honor of St. Patrick's Day, I took a long weekend to celebrate -- and anticipate -- something equally important, the advent of the baseball season.

The Cactus League is in full swing, drawing fans of the Midwest and West Coast teams that train here -- among them the Chicago Cubs, which claimed my allegiance long before I could read the standings or understand how chronically bad they were.

I am happy to say that the Cubs I scouted here are in the great tradition of the club. Jerome Williams, the starter in the Sunday game against the Oakland A's, warmed up in the bottom of the first, delivered his first pitch and saw it disappear instantly over the left field fence.

Before the inning ended, he was trailing 4-0, and while the Cubs tied it in the seventh, Glendon Rusch got hammered for another four-run inning, and the final score was 8-4 for the American Leaguers.

But the outcome mattered no more than the light shower that fell during the early innings -- only the second rain in more than 100 days. The big thing is that baseball is back, promising among other things to salve the jangled nerves of Washington.

Yes, indeed, we have a team again, the Nationals, playing at beat-up old Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, just 12 minutes from The Washington Post by convenient Metro. Nine of us in the newsroom have split four season tickets, which means I have nine games coming up in the next six months. How sweet is that?

Last year -- the first after decades in which the old Senators had decamped and left us no major league option other than the Orioles and the (ugh!) designated-hitter travesty that passes for American League baseball -- was marvelous.

Manager Frank Robinson, as gruff and uncommunicative as a skipper ought to be, got unexpectedly good starting pitching and found a great reliever in Chad Cordero. Through some strange alchemy, the lack of hitting and complete absence of speed did not cripple the offense. Visiting teams also could not reach the fences in roomy RFK, and the Nationals kept winning close, low-scoring games, staying in first place during much of the spring and summer.

In the end, they faded away, but it hardly mattered. There had been plenty of time to remind the capital of the joys of the national pastime -- and the true camaraderie of its fandom.

This is a totally different experience from going to watch the Redskins at their sterile suburban stadium. There, the wealthy and the famous arrive in limousines, ride escalators to their club suite level, and often don't even bother to come out into the sunshine to watch the game. The rest of us sit about as far above the action as if we were in a NASA shuttle, peering down through our field glasses.

At RFK, the stands are close to the action, and the fans are a cross-section of Washington. At one game, I bumped into Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt and an aide, sitting two rows behind us. At another, the seats next to ours were occupied by Jerry Rafshoon, Jimmy Carter's media adviser, and his family.

Even the beer vendors are part of the circle. The guy who sells the cold ones in our section paid no attention to the Post contingent, until one day when I showed up with two regular panelists from PBS' "Washington Week" as my guests. He was more interested in chatting them up than in selling beer.

I have serious concerns about the team this year. Except for the estimable John Patterson, most of our pitching has disappeared, via free agency and injury. Despite having a fine second baseman in Jose Vidro, the Nats made an off-season trade to bring in Alfonso Soriano, who had been an All-Star at the same position for the Texas Rangers -- only to discover that Soriano balked at shifting to left field until he was threatened with being suspended without pay.

Meantime, the city of Washington has signed a lease to build a fancy new ballpark, complete with luxury suites, down the hill from the Capitol. But the team still has no owner, being an appendage of that sinister corporate entity known as Major League Baseball, and its procrastinating CEO, Commissioner Bud Selig.

Does any of this mar the excitement of a new season? No way. Between the Cubs and the Nats, this is bound to be our year.

David Broder writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is

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