- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

After 34 years of waiting, a couple of close calls and plenty of heartbreak, the words Washington baseball fans have longed to hear finally can be cried out today.

“Play ball!”

The Washington Nationals open their inaugural season this afternoon at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, where the relocated Montreal Expos will make history against the hometown Phillies.

It’s the first regular-season baseball game for a team from Washington since Sept. 30, 1971, when the Senators were forced to forfeit to the New York Yankees after unruly fans at RFK Stadium stormed the field and disrupted play in the ninth inning.

There were no such disturbances yesterday at RFK, only 25,453 elated fans who braved football-like weather, complete with snow flurries early in the day, to cheer on their new team in its exhibition finale against the New York Mets. The Nationals lost the game 4-3, but were genuinely appreciative of the support that they received at their new home.

“They were very pleased to see the turnout and very appreciative of the support, especially on a day like today,” manager Frank Robinson said. “We didn’t give them much to yell about, but they were still there right to the end. That was nice.”

Rookie Ryan Church sparked the biggest ovation of the day when he hit a three-run homer in the second inning. The Mets rallied for two runs in the fourth and two in the fifth, though, and shut down the Nationals’ offense the rest of the afternoon.

The fans still went home happy, despite a steady series of minor operational hiccups at 44-year-old RFK, which underwent $18.4million worth of hurried renovations to get ready for this game. Unresolved problems include flooding water underneath the stands, insufficient food and drink at several concessions stands and a large helping of left-behind construction dust and debris.

Those issues and others must be taken care of before the Nationals return for their home opener April14 against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“We’re still 85 percent of where we need to be,” team President Tony Tavares said. “There’s just a ton of little adjustments to make. Nothing overwhelming. And we certainly don’t have the level of cleanliness that I want, but we’ll get there.”

Even with those issues and the bracing weather, fans heartily embraced the stadium as a baseball venue. The metal floorboards in the stands again shook and rumbled. Church’s home run generated a loud and impassioned ovation. And after the game, at a reception hosted by D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, the Nationals’ loss did nothing to dampen the festive mood.

Yesterday’s exhibition, with all proceeds going toward the Nationals’ new charitable foundation, was historic in its own right, but won’t compare with the regular-season opener today or the home opener next week.

Though Washington’s players understood the significance of their first game in the District, they seemed more excited about making the short train ride up to Philadelphia for the first game that counts in the standings.

For a franchise that spent the past two seasons without a permanent home, forced to play 22 of its 81 “home” games in Puerto Rico, Opening Day 2005 is a watershed moment.

“It’s a big comfort to the guys, a big relief mentally more than anything else,” Robinson said. “Finally, they have someplace to call home. They have fans behind them. Just like every other team in baseball, they’re going to play 81 games in one place. They’re very excited and very happy.”

As a result of the broadcasting-rights deal the Nationals, Major League Baseball and the Baltimore Orioles agreed to last week, today’s game will be shown locally on WDCA (Channel 20). It will mark the debut of the Nationals’ new announcing team of play-by-play man Mel Proctor and analyst Ron Darling, who were hired only two days ago and have never worked together.

The broadcast might be rough, but the Nationals think the play on the field will be smooth after nearly seven weeks of spring training, all of it designed to prepare the club for today and the six months of baseball to follow.

“We’re definitely ready and looking forward to it,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “The last two weeks, we’ve been wanting to get going. No matter if we’re ready or not, it’s happening tomorrow, and we’re going to make the best of it.”

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