Major league baseball returned Thursday to a city that had gone 12,250 days — since the Senators left in 1971 — without hosting a regular-season game. The Washington Nationals' home opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks was a joyous exclamation point for celebrations that began 6 1/2 months ago with the announcement that the Montreal Expos were heading south.Frank, I beg to differ. This is the same team that was unappreciated in Montreal. Yes, folks, baseball is back.
"Baseball is back, and happy days are here again!" proclaimed 77-year-old former Senators public address announcer Charlie Brotman, who returned to preside over one more home opener.
Washington baseball fans waited 34 years for baseball to return, and Bush restored a 95-year-old tradition of presidents throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the local team's first home game. He was cheered as he waved to the crowd and to players while walking to the mound, then he toed the rubber and quickly fired a pitch over the plate — slightly high, perhaps — to Nationals catcher Brian Schneider.
Many who had tough-to-get tickets for the game missed the moment because security lines for the metal detectors, installed just for the president's visit, were still 20 deep when the game started. Anyone watching on television also missed the president's pitch because it came during a commercial break — even though the timeline for the ceremonies had been available well in advance.
Then a lineup of Senators took positions — slugger Frank Howard, in left field, got the biggest ovation as he tipped his cap — and handed gloves to the Nationals players when the modern-day lineup ran onto the field.
"I'm numb. I'm raking it all in," said two-time batting champion Mickey Vernon, who turns 87 next week and was stationed at first base. "It's been a long while coming, but for those with patience, something good comes along."
Flashbulbs sparkled when Washington's Livan Hernandez threw the first real pitch, a strike to Craig Counsell. The ball was immediately taken out of play to be preserved for posterity.
The fun started seven hours before game time, when players were serenaded with chants of "Lets go, Nats!" at a $1,500-per-table VIP luncheon hosted by NBC's Tim Russert. The Nationals players, travel-weary after arriving the night before following a nine-game road trip, chuckled and otherwise tolerated endless photo-ops with big-name sponsors before being led into the hall by a high school marching band to the cheers of 1,000 of the city's top businessmen and political figures.[...]
There already have been numerous milestone dates in baseball's return to Washington, which had been without a team since the expansion Senators departed for Texas 34 years ago. There was the relocation announcement on Sept. 29, followed by the opening of spring training and the first spring training game in February, an exhibition game against the New York Mets at RFK Stadium on April 3, then the season opener at Philadelphia a day later.
But the last of the welcome-back parties was the biggest. Tickets for 46,000-seat RFK were hard to come by, even for some well-heeled Washingtonians. Leaders in Congress announced there would be no votes after 5 p.m. so lawmakers and staffers could attend the game, and the event offered natural opportunities for some friendly Republican-Democrat banter. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a New York Yankees fans, noted the Nationals' opponent hailed from the home state of Republican Sen. John McCain.
"And, of course," Lieberman said, "I wouldn't miss a chance to see Sen. McCain's team lose."
President Bush's first pitch came 95 years to the day after William Howard Taft tossed out a ball before a Senators-Athletics game on April 14, 1910.
Bush, a former part-owner of the Texas Rangers, was the 12th president given the honor of throwing out a first pitch in Washington, and the first since Richard Nixon in 1969. After the Senators left, presidents performed the ceremony in other cities; Bush did the honors in St. Louis last year.
The Nationals had the scoreboard ready: The name George W. Bush was written with the "W" in curly script, mimicking the design on the Nationals' hats.
"Somebody said, 'How do you describe the presidency?' I said it is a decision-making job. I've got a decision to make today. Do I go with a fastball or do I go with a slider?" President Bush said at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors before the game.
The Nationals are the last team to play a home game this season, which is probably for the best given the compressed schedule for renovating the stadium. Officials are still trying to figure out how to keep the new batting tunnel from flooding.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the Nationals arrived as a first-place team, having won two of three against the Atlanta Braves to improve to 5-4 in the NL East. Washington is playing with much of the same roster that finished last in 2004 in Montreal, although the players are finding they have much greater fan support than they had in Canada.
"Believe me, this club will not finish last in the National League East," manager Frank Robinson said. "I've heard people say this is the Montreal Expos in Washington Nationals uniforms. Those people don't know what they're talking about. They are not the Montreal Expos in Washington Nationals uniforms. They are the Washington Nationals."
Always important to read what the other side has to say. Right? This comes from Michael Reagan and accuses Democrats of being in denial.
Baseball Fact of the Day:
There might well have been more senators in the stands than there were former Washington Senators standing on the field for the pregame ceremony.
The last time this city had a professional baseball team, Watergate was not even a sparkle in G. Gordon Liddy's eye. Today, he hosts a popular radio show here. Only four senators and four congressmen who are still serving were in office when baseball left in 1971.
In that long interim, the capital has been transformed from its sleepy southern character to one of the nation's fastest growing and most expensive places to live. Since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan declared government the problem, through the administration of Bill Clinton, who declared "the era of big government is over," to George W. Bush's many railings about "the politicians in Washington," government has grown and brought with it a lot of prosperity.
But not even its perceived power could bring back baseball until now.
The population surge and the economic boom converged to the point that Major League Baseball had run out of excuses for not locating a franchise here.