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HELLER: Opening Day’s unique place in D.C. history

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The 27th president of the United States had just finished trying to placate a passel of angry suffragettes at the White House. With an empty afternoon stretching ahead, William Howard Taft turned to an aide and said, "Let's go to the ballgame."

A couple of hours later, the 300-pound chief executive struggled out of his seat at American League Park and tossed a baseball to Walter Johnson, the Senators pitcher. Thus was born, on April 14, 1910, one of the sports oldest traditions - the notion that Opening Day in Washington is something very special. This holds true even when the president doesn't attend, as will be the case this afternoon.

For decades, Washington shared the honor of always opening at home, along with Cincinnati, where baseball's first all-professional team played in 1869. But today as the Nationals face the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park, that distinction has been distinctly muted.

According to Major League Baseball in its infinite wisdom, the Nats often must yield regional Opening Day honors to the Baltimore Orioles. Even when Washington does begin at home, it must share attention with other sites as part of an ESPN slate.

This foolishness comes from the same MLB dunderheads who permitted the nation's capital to endure 33 seasons (1972 through 2004) without representation in the so-called "national pastime," so we shouldn't be surprised. But any Washington fan with gray in his hair knows Opening Day is something special in this city.

I've attended more than 20 D.C. openers since 1950, when the original Senators spanked the Athletics 8-7 at the start of Connie Mack's 50th and final season as the A's manager. My family and I were seated in the corner of the left-field stands at Griffith Stadium where an overhang obstructed most of the field. The only players we saw were the left fielders - Washington's Gil Coan, Philadelphia's Barney McCosky - but we had a nice view of an alley between the stands and the bleachers.

Some managers and players hate Opening Day with all its pomp and circumstance. It's only 1/162nd of a season, after all, and the way to succeed in baseball is by remaining on an even keel. You'll never hear anybody in spikes saying he was "up for the game." It's necessary to treat every day like the one before and the one ahead.

For fans, though, Opening Day always seems warm and wonderful, even if the temperature is 35 degrees. No other sport so heralds, at the start of each season, a kind of spiritual rebirth for those who love it.

Presidents from Taft through Richard Nixon, plus George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have abandoned their cares and woe to show up for Opening Day in Washington. And sometimes the occasion produces great drama.

In 1954, local icon Mickey Vernon beat the Yankees with a 10th-inning home run and was escorted to the presidential box for a handshake from Ike. Seventeen years later, the last Washington team before the Great Baseball Void thrashed the A's and pitcher Vida Blue, who would win his next 12 decisions and the American League Cy Young Award. In 2008, Ryan Zimmerman's walk-off homer dedicated Nationals Park spectacularly.

When a Washington team wins the opener, you see, it finds itself in first place at least for 24 hours. That's unique, too.

Humor also has graced Opening Day. Ambidextrous Harry Truman kept everybody guessing whether he would throw out the first ball righty or lefty. And the all-time chutzpah award goes to White Sox outfielder Jim Rivera, who caught the ceremonial toss from newly inaugurated John F. Kennedy in 1961 and presented the ball to the prez for his signature. When JFK handed it back, Rivera peered at the scrawled letters and scowled.

"What's this garbage?" he demanded. "Is that the way they teach you to write at Harvard? Give me a signature somebody can read."

Kennedy laughed and rewrote his name more legibly.

That was a memorable moment, one of many on Opening Day in Washington. It should be a fixture each spring from here to eternity.

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