After 79 years, Nationals represent a ‘lifetime dream realized’

ST. LOUIS — Under a cloudless sky that whipped cold wind into a sea of red, the end arrived at 2:08 p.m. local time.

Seventy-nine years to the day separated Washington from Major League Baseball’s postseason. Thirteen presidents and two franchises departing the city and 28,855 days since the last postseason pitch struck out Joe Kuehl of the Senators to end the 1933 World Series in the 10th inning. Seventy-nine years since Senators player-manager Joe Cronin’s prediction that bigger and better season awaited Washington sputtered, instead, to baseball purgatory.

White towels whirled through Busch Stadium on Sunday afternoon as Adam Wainwright’s 92-mph pitch to Jayson Werth sank out of the strike zone. The wait ended as the Washington Nationals’ Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals began.

“A lifetime dream realized,” read the handwritten sign held aloft by one Nationals supporter along the third base line. “IN baseball playoffs.”

The end smelled like grilled Hunter hot dogs and spilled beer.

Red covered everything. Seats, picnic tables, garbage cans. The bill of Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner’s cap as he flashed a thumbs-up to a group of supporters. Sweaters, knee-high leather boots, hoodies, wool blankets wrapped around infants, beer koozies, lines on a kilt. The knee-high socks on Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche’s pint-sized son, Drake, as he shagged balls during batting practice. Red beads, dog collars, miniature boxing gloves and onesies in the team store. Greasy smears of face paint. Towels, scarves, dyed hair, sneakers and pins on ushers’ credentials reminding folks this is the home of baseball’s defending world champions.

None of this bothered Davey Johnson. The wisecracking Nationals manager suggested he called a team meeting before Sunday’s game to ban media from the clubhouse. Then he laughed in the way only a 69-year-old with 11 postseason trips as a player and manager can. Never mind history. Johnson chattered and relaxed like this was July, helped, in part, by the cortisone and Novocain injections to calm his troublesome back.

“It’s not my first rodeo,” Johnson explained, “and, you know, I’m kind of a dinosaur.”

In the press box, gray-haired and smiling, John McLaren scouted the game for the Oakland Athletics. He managed the Nationals for three games between Jim Riggleman and Johnson last season, bridging the old and new.

The end looked like bags of bright white baseballs emblazoned with “2012 Postseason” below the red stitches and steam rising off bright orange nacho cheese coating tortilla chips.

Wind made the 54 degrees feel colder. Fingers stiffened. During batting practice, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, in a gray suit, shifted his weight from side to side as the breeze cut through grass that seemed to sparkle in the sun. The gray postseason hoodies the Nationals wore were so new that crease marks remained. Hoods tugged against heads as the late-day shadow crept through the stadium. Earmuffs and parkas, red, of course, appeared in the stands to brace against October’s chill.

A day earlier, Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez shivered and shook through a 15-minute news conference. The Florida native isn’t accustomed to the weather. But, as usual, he wore short sleeves on the mound in the coldest temperatures he’s pitched in since May 17, 2011, in Oakland, Calif.

The end sounded like the crack of Ian Desmond’s bat on the ball in the second inning. The shortstop deposited a 0-1 sinker into center field for the first Washington postseason hit since Cronin’s two-out, 10th-inning single in Game 5 of the 1933 World Series.

Cronin played shortstop, too, while he managed the Senators at 26 years old. He eventually entered the Hall of Fame, pushed by 11 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, and died a year before Desmond’s birth in 1985.

“I think there’s going to be some new history in Washington from here on out,” Desmond said.

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