- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

You sit in the upper deck area three hours before game time, and you realize that only one word adequately describes Nationals Park.

Wow!

Nothing else prepares you for this — neither the glowing stories and pictures in print and on TV nor a baseball lifetime spent watching games at dilapidated Griffith Stadium and characterless RFK Stadium.

The Capitol dome rising in pristine glory far beyond the left-field stands (though it’s visible only from the highest of four levels. The humongous, hi-def replay board atop the seats in right-center. Even the unfinished federal buildings in the distance, one adorned with a huge banner reading “WELCOME HOME NATS!”

You have to see it. You have to feel it.

This is baseball 2008 in our long-deprived nation’s capital. And for anyone who survived all those rotten Washington Senators teams — both original and expansion versions — the only possible thought is: Thank goodness I lived long enough to see this.

Nationals Park is a treasure we’ll enjoy all season and for untold seasons to come. But when Odalis Perez rears back and lets fly the first official pitch of 2008 tonight at 8:05 or thereabouts, the focus will shift to the kind of baseball we’ll be watching here and elsewhere for the next six months.

OK, the ballpark is lovely. Will the Nationals, still a year or two away from serious contention in the National League East, take a hint from their surroundings and be at least occasionally lovely, too?

This is a franchise that’s building the right way, meaning deliberately and with the emphasis on signing and nurturing prime prospects rather than hurling all caution and free-agent contracts to the wind — thank you, Messrs. Lerner, Kasten and Bowden.

Forty miles up the road, the Baltimore Orioles have done everything wrong during a full decade of losing teams. Finally, new president/baseball operations Andy MacPhail is starting from ground zero, but the O’s are three years behind the Nats in player development — and there’s no guarantee that owner Peter Angelos, the worst thing to hit Charm City since the British in 1814, will continue to let MacPhail do his thing.

But for older Washington fans, Baltimore might as well be 400 or 4,000 miles from Nationals Park. Our attention should be on the guys in red, white and blue with the “curly W” on their caps. So while we wait for the Detwilers, Smokers, Balesters and Castos to start knocking ‘em dead in the bigs, some veteran hands must do the job.

Look for Ryan Zimmerman, Nick Johnson, Lastings Milledge, Wily Mo Pena and hopefully rejuvenated Elijah Dukes to pound on those closer fences at Nationals Park. Expect starters Perez, Shawn Hill, Jason Bergmann, Matt Chico and Tim Redding to pitch well enough for the Nats to rely on their deep bullpen in the later innings. And trust that Jim Bowden will hoodwink another GM into trading valuable horseflesh for one of those three guys in the crowded middle infield: Ronnie Belliard, Cristian Guzman or Felipe Lopez.

And let’s not forget Manny Acta, who got everything possible out of his much-maligned troops as a rookie manager in 2007. I yield to no one in my respect for Frank Robinson, but I doubt that the Nats’ crusty first skipper could have handled his young players as well as Manny did a year ago.

Lest we forget, a team that some wisenheimers thought might lose 120 games finished 73-89 — and this after a 9-25 start. That means the Nats went 64-64 over the final five months, thereby confounding nearly all observers.

Which brings us to this season. This is not a club that can afford many injuries — there were enough, for heaven’s sakes, in spring training — or many down seasons by key performers. But there is a feeling here that the Nationals will absorb enough of the positive energy from their new home to be winners.

So let’s put them down, cautiously, for 83-79 — and let the applause begin.

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