Friday, April 15, 2005

The past, present and future of major league baseball in the nation’s capital converged on sold-out RFK Stadium last night as the game returned to the District after an absence of nearly 34 years.

After a nine-game trip to open the season, the Washington Nationals became the last team to open at home, facing the Arizona Diamondbacks. But to the 45,596 in attendance, the wait was more than worth it. The Nationals’ 5-3 victory was the first time that a team representing the District played before a home crowd since Sept. 30, 1971.

That was the infamous night the Washington Senators played their last game before moving to Texas, a game lost to the New York Yankees by forfeit. Fans stormed the field with two out in the top of the ninth and the Senators leading 7-5, essentially trashing the place in a madcap hunt for souvenirs.

On the mound for the Senators that evening was left-hander Joe Grzenda, who was back at RFK last night with the same ball he held during the chaos and has kept since. Grzenda handed the ball to President Bush, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, thus closing the circle after more than three decades.

“It’s unbelievable this is happening,” Grzenda said beforehand.

The president’s pitch was high and out of the strike zone, but Livan Hernandez, the Nationals’ starting pitcher, fared better when he took the mound. As thousands of flashbulbs went off, turning the old ballpark into a giant sparkler, Arizona’s leadoff hitter, Craig Counsell, took Hernandez’s first pitch for a strike.

Baseball was back indeed.

Hernandez, who also started the Nationals’ season opener in Philadelphia last week, pointed heavenward, tossed the historic ball into the dugout on the third-base side and then struck out Counsell on a called third strike en route to a three-up, three-down first inning.

In addition to Mr. Bush’s toss, pregame ceremonies included the unfurling of a giant American flag that covered nearly the entire outfield, an F-16 flyover by the 113th wing of the D.C. Air National Guard and renditions of both “God Bless America” and the national anthem.

Several dignitaries were introduced. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who championed the return of baseball, was cheered. D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, who opposed the plan to finance the new stadium, was booed.

The most gripping moment came when the old Senators morphed into the present-day Nationals. Former Senators, including towering outfielder Frank Howard and 87-year-old Mickey Vernon, took positions on the field holding the gloves of the Nationals players. They handed them over when the Nationals took the field.

“It’s like Opening Day, but extra special,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said before the game. “This is completely different from anything I have experienced on Opening Day. I don’t know if I can put it into words, but now I feel like we’re home.”

One of the ex-Senators, Chuck Hinton, exulted, “We’ve got our own team. How about that? We almost had teams, five times at least, and now it’s a reality. It’s like a toy.”

The old Senators rarely were winners, a fact Hinton readily acknowledged.

“We were pitiful,” he said.

Former Senators public-address announcer Charlie Brotman emceed the ceremonies and worked yet another Opening Day. Mr. Brotman was the full-time PA announcer from 1956 — in old Griffith Stadium at $10 a game — to 1962. But he continued to be summoned for subsequent Opening Days. Now here he was again at 77, replete in a fancy tuxedo, doing it one more time.

“I like to think the club hasn’t been out of town,” said Mr. Brotman, a well-known publicist here in town. “It’s been more like a long road trip. A long road trip that finally came back for a game.”

It was like a who’s who of the past. Bob Wolff, who started as a TV broadcaster for the Senators in 1947, when something like 250 people had televisions, he said, was on the field doing countless interviews and signing autographs. Not every fan remembered Mr. Wolff, but their fathers did.

“Everything in my career started right here in Washington, D.C.,” said Mr. Wolff, 84, who was honored by the writers and broadcasters wing of the baseball Hall of Fame in 1995. “My first major league baseball game, my youngsters were born at the Georgetown hospital, I was married in the Bethesda Naval Chapel. Washington is, to me, the birth of it all in every way, and I’m just thrilled to be back.”

Security was extraordinarily tight because of the president’s appearance. Fans waited in long lines to pass through metal detectors, and bags were checked out by bomb-sniffing dogs. Law-enforcement personnel were perched on the stadium roof, and what appeared to be Secret Service agents were stationed in the dugouts, wearing the uniforms of the respective teams.

The fans, many of whom were decked out in the blue or red (or both) of both the Senators and the Nationals, didn’t seem to care about any of that.

“Isn’t this exciting?” marveled Gerry Treanor, an attorney with a large D.C. firm who still can recall the smell of the Wonder Bread factory near Griffith Stadium, where the old Senators used to play. “Just walking out into the stadium and seeing the colors gets me every time.”

Mr. Treanor is among the legions of area baseball fans who thought that their hopes for a team would go unfulfilled and that this day never would come.

“I believe it now, seeing all these red hats,” he said from his box seats along the first-base line before the game. “It’s a wonderful treat that, frankly, I had just about given up on.”

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