Nationals connect with fans on Caravan

Nationals connect with fans on Caravan

NORTH BETHESDA, Md. -- Nine-year-old Lucia Rodriguez is a big Washington Nationals fan. She's already been to two events on this week's Winter Caravan the team is running and, Wednesday night, decided to do something different.

The Silver Spring resident went to outfielder Nook Logan and pitcher Mike O'Connor and worked on teaching them how to spell her name in sign language. They worked at it, and O'Connor came very close to getting it right several minutes after Rodriguez showed the lefty.

Those several minutes that Rodriguez spent with O'Connor, Logan and manager Manny Acta delighted the little girl, who will likely remember this night for a very long time.

"They're funny and they're nice and they're here," Rodriguez said. "It was fun."

That's the kind of story the Nationals are hoping that children -- and adults -- come away with from this Winter Caravan. Acta, Logan, O'Connor and others will be working their way throughout the District, Maryland and Virginia as a way of connecting with fans and drumming up support for the team.

The Caravan found its way to the team's official store located at the White Flint Mall in North Bethesda on Wednesday. On the corner of the second level, right by the always popular Bloomingdale's, the Nationals store had more people in it than any nearby.

Children and adults waited in line to get autographs and speak with Acta, Logan and O'Connor, seated at the back of the store in front of a bright red wall with an oversized "W." People loved getting excuses to talk to Acta and the players, and it was easy to see how much they enjoyed it.

Alphonso Maldon, the team's senior vice president for external affairs and Nationals Foundation president, enjoyed watching everyone meet the players, and things like this are what the team wants to do on a regular basis.

"This is our opportunity to really connect with our fans," Maldon said. "We made a commitment ... that we were going to be aggressively present in the community. That's our responsibility, to be a good corporate citizen."

Maldon said players will do a community outing each month, and that the Nationals will have a regular autograph-signing event before each home game. It's another way to connect with the fans that the new owners badly want to reach.

"I remember meeting Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, and I'll never forget that," Maldon said. "If we win the fans, they'll be there forever."

O'Connor remembers meeting players from the Rangers and Orioles during his childhood days. The pitcher was born in Dallas and grew up in Maryland and recalls how excited he'd be to meet players he saw on TV on a regular basis.

"I know that meeting the players is always fun," O'Connor said. "It's easy [for the players] to do. It's been fun. The days go quickly."

Acta agreed with O'Connor. The new manager is an ebullient personality who's great with kids. He'll often talk to them, ask questions and try to get the children in some kind of conversation, no matter how brief.

Logan is kind of a quiet personality, but he'll do the same thing. One boy came up to get an autograph, but was shy and had trouble looking Logan in the eye. Logan seemed to sense this and made a joke about the fact that the kid was wearing a Washington Redskins jersey (specifically Clinton Portis).

"Clinton Portis?" Logan asked. The child smiled slowly and nodded. The connection had been made.

"It is a lot of fun," Acta said. "The fact that they see us -- sometimes they put us on a pedestal, but we're just like them. We're normal human beings, just like them."

And people that Lucia Rodriguez could spend several minutes teaching ways to do names in sign language.

Jeff Seidel is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.