- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

PHILADELPHIA — The grass is green, the sky blue, the brain completely addled. When it comes to gauzy self-deception, Opening Day ranks somewhere between the Flat Earth Society and believing your high school prom tuxedo still fits, albeit a bit snug around the seat.

After all, no other occasion on the sports calendar produces such a reliable outpouring of mutton-headed malarkey.

We can do it.

The pitching will hold up.

The runs will come in bunches.

This is our year!

“It’s a rebirth, a new beginning,” says Graham Bagshaw, a Woodbridge, Va., resident at Citizens Bank Ballpark for the Washington Nationals’ inaugural game. “Everybody starts together. It has that appeal.”

Matt Rosko knows better. A lifelong Philadelphia Phillies fan, he has lived through a handful of ups, a bushel of downs and the relief artistry of Mitch Williams. As such, Rosko approaches new seasons in the manner of a lab rat nudging a food lever — hoping for a pellet, bracing for electroshock.

“We don’t have that it-could-be-our-year feeling,” says Rosko, 23, a strength and conditioning coach for the Saint Joseph’s basketball team. “It’s the same as last year: get our hopes up and then it all comes crashing down.”

Two fans. Two points of view.

And as baseball finally returns to the District, the Nationals must do without what the Phillies have: no mascot, no shiny new ballpark, no wealthy owners to bloat the payroll.

But in another sense, Washington has something no other major league city can boast: a clean slate. While baseball supporters in Philadelphia and elsewhere cram previous failures and anticipated heartbreak into fandom’s overhead bin, Nationals backers are baggage-free and breezing though security.

For them, the entire season will be an extended Opening Day.

“If the team finishes last, I wouldn’t be upset,” says Jad Bishara, 23, a graduate student from Great Falls who drove up to see the game. “We’ve lost teams twice, so basically we have a honeymoon period. They can do no wrong.”

Bishara thumbs his Nationals cap, wears a crimson-colored team jersey under his jacket. He stands behind the Washington dugout next to his girlfriend, Sadaf, a student at George Mason University.

Any expectations for the year?

“No, not at all,” Sadaf, 19, says with a laugh. “I don’t think it matters.”

Nearby sits a man in a Montreal Expos jersey, the only reminder of the former Les Miserables. A few fans sport throwback Senators jackets and hats.

For Seth Goodman, the connections are tenuous. A Redskins fan from Gaithersburg, he skipped work to be here with his father, Bruce.

Cheering for the Nationals, they say, will be different.

“If the Redskins lose on a Sunday night, you can’t sleep, can’t function at work on Monday,” says Seth, 28. “This team can go 0-162, and they’ll still pack the ballpark.”

Matt Borrelli is almost jealous. A Philadelphia teacher, he still tears up at the memory of Toronto’s Joe Carter hitting a World Series-ending home run off Williams in 1993.

Last year, the Phillies moved into their current park, hoping to capture a division crown. The team missed the playoffs. Fans are still smarting.

When Philadelphia’s Jon Lieber yielded an early run yesterday, the boos came raining down — never mind that the season was all of 23 minutes old.

“We’ve only won one World Series in 122 freakin’ years,” says Borrelli, 24. “We’re bitter.”

Bagshaw can relate. Sort of. Born in England, he came to America five years ago in a teaching exchange program and thought baseball was ridiculous.

“I could only tell you Babe Ruth, Yankees, Red Sox, Braves,” he recalls. “Somebody once mentioned Ty Cobb, so I knew the name.”

Living in Charlotte, N.C., Bagshaw became an Atlanta fan, falling in love with the game through TBS. Today, he has made a pilgrimage to every major league park — “technically,” he notes, “since I didn’t go to San Juan” — and has adopted Boston as well.

“I picked my hotel last night based on how far I could drive from [Woodbridge] before the [Sunday night] Yankees-Red Sox game started on ESPN,” Bagshaw says, lamenting Boston’s 9-2 Opening Night loss. “To be honest, I wish I hadn’t.”

Someday, he adds, he will feel the same way about the Nationals. But not just yet. Not on a sunny afternoon, not in a season in which everything is new.

“As long as they play hard, I’ll be happy,” he says. “Hey, in four years they could be like Arizona. That’s the beauty of it. You never know what’s going to happen on any given day.”

The beer is cold, the ballpark filling up. Bagshaw takes it all in. He has the rest of his fan life to greet Opening Day with a mix of hope and dread.

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