Introduction of Taft headlines busy NatsFest
WASHINGTON -- Only in Washington could politics and baseball intertwine so effortlessly.
The Nationals enter the 2013 season as the defending National League East champions and one of the best teams in the Major Leagues. However, one of the highlights of NatsFest, held Saturday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, was the introduction of William Howard Taft as the fifth member of the nightly Presidents Race.
The Racing Presidents are 12-foot over-sized mascots who race during the fourth inning of each home game. They can be seen promoting the team plus helping with community efforts at Nationals Park and around the area. They even have their own web page at Nationals.com/racingpresidents, where fans can learn more about each competitor. The Nats keep it informal with the Presidents, and Taft will be known simply as "Bill" and race against George (Washington), Tom (Jefferson), Abe (Lincoln) and Teddy (Roosevelt).
Teddy won for the first time ever last season when he captured the final four races with the first victory earning him national publicity. However, Taft received a loud ovation from a packed ballroom when he came out on to the stage Saturday at NatsFest.
"The world turned upside down when Teddy won last year," said Doug Simon of Alexandria, standing next to the stage. "The more participants in the race, the better. It's going to be interesting to see how the fans react."
Teddy grew wildly popular thanks to all the goofy ways he kept losing the race. Fans were chanting "Teddy, Teddy, Teddy" when he came out on the stage after Bill was introduced Saturday afternoon.
Eight-year-old Charlie Simon wondered exactly what Bill's role would be while standing there and checking him out.
"I think he's going to be like Teddy," Charlie said. "He's going to mess around just like Teddy does."
Charlie Slowes, the team's radio play-by-play voice, said this will add a different dimension to the Racing Presidents in 2013.
"This will be interesting," he said. "I guess it gives them a new twist on how to script out the different races and, of course, Teddy's going into the season on a [four]-game winning streak."
The introduction of Taft proved one of the more popular events Saturday, but there were plenty of things in place to keep Nationals fans busy on a cold winter afternoon.
Team officials didn't have an exact attendance count and wouldn't until next week. They said that this was the biggest NatsFest ever. The Convention Center was packed with fans, most of whom were wearing something showing they backed the Nats.
Simply put, the color red and curly W could be seen all over the place. Fans of all ages could meet and talk with players, get pictures taken with them and do a number of other things also involving the team.
Several Nationals players also were in attendance, and the fan turnout left them shaking their heads in admiration.
"I'm blown away," pitcher Gio Gonzalez said. "This is the first time I've ever experienced something like this. To be a part of it ... it's incredible. I think you have such a great fan base that they're building, and it's only building more and more."
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray also noticed the big crowd and how much of a buzz there was at the event -- which impressed him.
"It's huge and it really is a great shot in the arm for the city also," Gray said. "The Nationals have really become such a force and they're so well supported now by the region, and you can tell just by being in with this event today. I think people are still excited from last year."
And Opening Day is April 1, just over two months away.