- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

One year ago, in their first game in their new city inside their new, yet old, ballpark, the Montreal Expos-turned-Washington Nationals won their home opener to celebrate the return of Major League Baseball to the District. On hand were President Bush and a capacity crowd at RFK Stadium.

Opening Day apparently isn’t what it used to be. And neither, so far, are the Nationals.

Playing the first home game of their second season yesterday with Vice President Dick Cheney and a less-than-full house on hand, the Nationals clouded up an otherwise lovely afternoon for their fans by losing 7-1 to the New York Mets. They were outhit 12-3 and handcuffed by a young pitcher, Brian Bannister, making just his second big-league start.

The temperature climbed into the 70s, and brilliant sunshine accentuated the cushy new emerald turf and the Nationals’ sparkling white home uniforms. The crowd was announced as 40,530, but with no-shows, an estimated 35,000 were in the stadium. The RFK capacity is listed at 46,382.

Asked before the game about the contrast between the two home openers, manager Frank Robinson said, “It’s different for us because that [first] year is under our belt. That year is over. It was very special. But it’s gone. The way you’re going to keep your excitement here is by winning.”

By that standard, the Nationals have not been very exciting. They have lost six of eight games so far. Still, it was a delightful setting yesterday, albeit absent some of last year’s electric atmosphere. Much of the crowd arrived late because of traffic and tight security measures for Mr. Cheney’s presence.

Among those who managed to arrive early, kids on vacation from school or simply playing hooky descended into the lower stands before the game, hoping for autographs or at least a close-up glimpse of the players. Chris Weiner, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Maryland, was missing out on two classes — calculus and the psychology of sports — and suffering no remorse whatsoever.

“A bad day of baseball is better than a good day of school,” he said, unaware that the theory would be so readily tested.

Mr. Weiner was lucky. He got Nationals pitcher John Patterson to sign a miniature home plate bearing the team logo. Patterson stood next to the Nationals dugout for an extended time, signing everything the fans put in front of him. Finally, Patterson said “two more.” He wound up signing about 10 more.

“It’s Opening Day and the fans are excited, so I thought I’d stand there and talk to them for a second,” he said.

A second? It was more like 20 minutes.

“I hate telling them no, especially when they’re just standing there,” he said.

After the obligatory flyover and renditions of both “God Bless America” and the national anthem (the latter by the renowned tenor Placido Domingo), Mr. Cheney took the mound in a red Nationals jacket to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

A controversial subject of late, not least of all for the accidental shotgun shooting of a hunting companion in February, Mr. Cheney was greeted by a resounding chorus of boos. Then he fired his pitch on a bounce to catcher Brian Schneider, safely guarded by a red chest protector. Neither Schneider nor anyone else was hurt.

“It’s hard to top last year,” Schneider said. “It was fun, though. It was good to be able to catch the vice president. Just check it off the list, I guess.”

According to Schneider’s checklist, maybe Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert should begin warming up for next year.

Meanwhile, Bannister, a rookie right-hander starting for the Mets, who pitched well against Washington in his debut last week, gave up one run and just three hits in seven innings yesterday.

The crowd finally had something to cheer about when Alfonso Soriano belted a towering home run to left field with two out in the seventh. The blast did not alter the game, but it did reiterate why the club traded with Texas to get Soriano, despite his well-publicized reluctance to move from second base to left field.

That, however, was the extent of the Nationals’ offense. They loaded the bases in the ninth inning, but rookie Ryan Zimmerman struck out to end any hopes of a miracle comeback.

“The breaks just aren’t going our way right now,” said Zimmerman, noting that several balls were hit hard but directly at Met fielders.

“The offense is not clicking right now,” Robinson said. “Period.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

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