- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

PHILADELPHIA. — At precisely 3:07 p.m. yesterday, starting pitcher Jon Lieber of the Philadelphia Phillies flung a stitched horsehide toward a man named Brad Wilkerson who wore a gray uniform with the unlikely word “Washington” across the breast.

After a span of 12,240 days that seemed longer, D.C. finally and officially was back in the big leagues despite the worst efforts of commissioner Bud Selig, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, D.C. Council chairman Linda Cropp and assorted other bad guys.

Though the spanking new Nationals were spanked by the Phillies 8-4, it was a day for rejoicing among folks who consider baseball a way of life and the nation’s capital a right and proper venue for it.

The most important city in America devoid of representation in the most American of sporting pastimes? What could the dunderheads who run baseball have been thinking? And by the way, retroactive curses on the late Bob Short, who had the gall to shanghai the expansion Senators off to Arlington, Texas, at the conclusion of business at RFK Stadium on the evil evening of Sept. 30, 1971.

But April 4, 2005, in all its chilly, breezy glory at Citizens Bank Park, was a day for relishing the present rather than rehashing the past. For Nationals fans in the stands or watching on television, the operative emotion was satisfaction — accompanied perhaps by a nod of thanks heavenward, assuming anyone in authority thereabouts cares a rodent’s rump for baseball.

No, I take that back. Yesterday Washington’s baseball faithful were having 34 years of prayers answered, if belatedly.

The day must have been especially memorable for Nationals manager Frank Robinson, although he tries manfully not to let his emotions show. Thirty springs ago, F. Robby became the first black manager in the major leagues and observed the occasion by ordering himself to hit a game-winning, pinch-hit home run on behalf of his Cleveland Indians. Asked yesterday whether he might use similar strategy should the need arise against the Phillies, Robinson demurred and placed the blame squarely on his general manager, saying, “I don’t think Jim Bowden will activate me.”

No wonder. Despite his 586 home runs, there is reason to suspect Hall of Fame player Robinson is over the hill. After all, he’ll celebrate, if that’s the word, three score and 10 birthdays this summer.

Accosted in the Nationals’ dugout before the game, Bowden admitted a few butterflies were flapping in his gullet, “the same nerves, the same goose bumps players feel on Opening Day.” He had another reason to be jittery. Because nobody knows what the new owners will do after MLB sells the club, Bowden’s job security is nil, though he has done very well strengthening the team so far while wearing a financial straitjacket.

“You can’t let distractions prevent you from doing your job as if you’re going to be here [in the future],” Bowden said. “Of course I want to stay in Washington. But I stay awake at night worrying about my children, not about my job.”

About those Opening Day jitters: Most players try to pretend Opening Day is like any other, but that’s an outright fib. As Nationals infielder Jamey Carroll put it: “You start with a completely clean slate every spring, and you have to be wondering what will happen next.”

Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be neat if life itself started with a completely clean slate every spring?

Some of the Nationals weren’t sure whether yesterday’s season opener or next week’s home opener at RFK would be more memorable.

“That’s a really good question,” said outfielder Terrmel Sledge, who later contributed a two-run homer and three RBI to the proceedings. “I guess I won’t know until after both games, will I?”

Bet on the opener at RFK a week from Thursday. Regardless of how the Nationals do in their first three series in Philly, Florida and Atlanta, they won’t really seem like a Washington team until they play in Washington.

In that sense, yesterday’s game and the eight to follow are merely warmups for April 14 — just as this season is merely a precede for those to come under a permanent owner that hopefully will be intelligent and benevolent toward its fans.

The Nationals took a 1-0 lead in the second when Sledge’s infield grounder fetched home Nick Johnson from third base, but after that it was mostly the Phillies’ day. There was an ominous portent in the second inning when Lieber picked up his first RBI since 2001 with a fly to deep right, and Kenny Lofton pretty much wrapped up matters in the fifth when his three-run homer made it 7-1, Philadelphia. (For those who cherish meaningless trivia, let us note that Lofton also was the first man to bat at Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992.)

And so it was that the Washington Nationals’ first real game produced their first real defeat, to go along with several thousand amassed over 71 years by both versions of the frequently lamentable, as well as lamented, Senators. The lovely difference is that the Nationals will have a chance to avenge it tomorrow.

For better or worse, baseball is back — and that’s a huge victory for all of us.

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