- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

So they opened the baseball season in Washington yesterday, only they didn’t. And the overriding suspicion was that those 40,530 folks at RFK Stadium must have had nothing better to do.

If you’re scoring at home, that attendance figure means there were 5,128 RFK chairs unfilled by fannies. Empty seats at the first game of the season in the nation’s capital? Thanks a lot, Major League Baseball, for doing us wrong. Again.

Yes, we do have a team to call our own. But where is its owner? Why did it take so long for MLB and the wacky D.C. Council to agree on a lease? And whatever happened to the grand old tradition that a Washington club always opens the season at home?

This seemed a faux opener, sort of like staging a wedding reception after the happy couple had been married a year. The Nationals didn’t help matters either, because they were crawling into this game with a 2-5 record.

In the old days, meaning for most of the 20th century until the silent spring of 1972, the Washington Senators could enjoy the rarefied air of first place for at least a day by winning their opener. This time, because of earlier transgressions, the Nats could only edge a bit closer to .500 by scuttling the uncooperative New York Mets.

Oh, the Nats tried to make it a festive occasion. Members of the D.C. National Guard spread perhaps the largest American flag in captivity across the outfield, jets soared by and no less an operatic presence than Placido Domingo sang the national anthem while pretend bombs were bursting in air.

Then Vice President Dick Cheney, pinch hitting for his absent boss, strode onto the field to such a cascade of boos you would have thought Pedro Martinez had arrived on the scene. Or maybe Peter Angelos.

Nats catcher Brian Schneider wore shin guards as he crouched to catch Cheney’s first pitch, but it was impossible to ascertain whether he feared the Veep’s famously errant aim or simply was prepared to take the field for real afterward. At any rate, Cheney proved more accurate with a baseball than a rifle. His toss would have been low and outside to a right-handed batter, but at least it didn’t conk any lawyers en route.

Then Nats skipper Frank Robinson delegated the pitching chores to another right-hander, Ramon Ortiz, whose 10.80 ERA coming in suggested that Hall of Famer Walter Johnson would remain Washington’s premier all-time starter in home openers.

Lo and behold, Ortiz did a passable imitation of the Big Train by restricting New York to two hits and no runs through three innings. But in the fourth, the Mets remembered they are supposed to be one of the National League East’s tough teams this season. Singles by the two Carloses, Beltran and Delgado, plus a double by David Wright and a sac fly by Cliff Floyd added up to a 2-0 New York lead that clouded an otherwise gorgeous day.

It got darker, too, when the Mets scored three more runs while the Nats were playing pattycake against New York starter Brian Bannister, who was turning in his second strong start against Washington. He also did some damage with his bat, lashing a double inside the third-base line in the seventh and trotting home on Jose Reyes’ triple.

Against Bannister, the Nats managed just two piddling hits before Alfonso Soriano cracked a meaningless homer to left with two out in the seventh. In fact, the entire afternoon was meaningless — a 7-1 loss that could serve as an unfortunate harbinger for a team without enough pitching or hitting to make much of a dent in the NL East. In that sense, it could be said, Bannister started the Nats’ slide.

Now, with all the Opening Days done, the Nats will settle down into the daily grind that represents a baseball season. They surprised us last year with that 51-30 first half, so perhaps they will do it again by playing respectably.

More realistically, though, the Nats’ future is not now. The current guys deserve our thanks and support for returning baseball to the nation’s capital, but that may be their only claim to fame.

Of course, longtime D.C. fans — meaning those who recall both editions of the Senators — are used to this sort of thing. It would be nice if RFK is a pulsating place this summer, particularly after yesterday’s yawner, but for now we may have to take comfort merely that the Nationals are, rather than from what they do.

Trying to put a positive spin on events afterward, Robinson noted, “There are 150 games to go — that’s the beauty of baseball.”

Except there may not be much about 2006 that will be beautiful for the Nats.

Mediocre baseball, if that’s how this season plays out, might not set off waves of euphoria in these long forsaken parts. But as anyone who lived through that 34-year drought will tell you, it’s eminently preferable to no baseball.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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