- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 5, 2005

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PHILADELPHIA — At 3:07 p.m. yesterday, wearing the gray road uniform of the Washington Nationals, Brad Wilkerson stepped into the batter’s box — and history.

Wilkerson took a called strike from Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jon Lieber. The ball was quickly tossed into the Nationals’ dugout at windswept Citizens Bank Park, and the first major league team to represent Washington in nearly 34 years was up and running in its official debut.

It was a momentous Opening Day of firsts before a sellout crowd of 44,080. Wilkerson seized the moment by recording Washington’s first hit, a bloop single to right field. Livan Hernandez threw the first pitch for the Nationals. Nick Johnson scored the first run, and Terrmel Sledge hit the first home run.

The Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, also lost for the first time, 8-4. Hernandez, the staff ace, was shelled for seven runs in 42/3 innings. “He just wasn’t sharp today,” Washington manager Frank Robinson said. The swirling wind seemed to have little effect, although it did prevent a Navy skydiving team from dropping into the ballpark to deliver the ball.

The game lasted a lengthy three hours and 19 minutes as the teams used a total of 11 pitchers, six by Washington. The Phillies had 14 hits and the Nationals 13. But, as Robinson noted, “It’s when you get the hits, not how many.”

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other area dignitaries were on hand to take it all in on a bright, sunny afternoon.

Wilkerson, who is one of the team’s best-known players, said it was exciting to be part of Opening Day. But then again, “Every Opening Day is special,” he said. “It’s an honor to be on a big league club.”

Asked whether he felt honored being the first Nationals hitter ever or the first to get a hit, he said, “Right now, I’m more worried about getting this ballclub some wins. When I look back, I think it will be special.”

In a nod to the past and a salute to the tradition of baseball in the nation’s capital, Del Unser threw out the first ball. Unser is a former Phillie, but he was picked for this occasion because he played right field for Washington on Sept. 30, 1971, the Senators’ final game before the team moved to Texas and the last time there was big league baseball in the District.

Long before the game began, Nationals fans gathered behind the visiting dugout for an early glimpse of their new favorite team. Dan Allen, a 12-year-old from Fairfax Station, held a sign that read “Don’t Show Me on TV. I’m Skipping School.” He admitted that by calling attention to himself in such a fashion, he did, in fact, hope to be shown on TV.

Both Dan and his father, Jim, wore red Nationals home caps. Yes, they admitted, they were out of uniform. Other Nationals’ fans proudly displayed their colors. Mike Bender of Derwood, accompanied by his wife, Marianne, and son Stephen was decked out in a Washington Senators jacket, Nationals replica jersey and a Nationals’ T-shirt underneath it all. He said he got his tickets after he punched in “April 4” on the team Web site and was redirected to the Phillies’ site.

“I was in shock,” he said.

Mr. Bender, 55, grew up in Hyattsville. He said he did not attend a lot of Senators games, “but I listened to as many as I could” and was “disgusted” when the club left for Texas. Now he was witnessing history. “Being here is beyond what I had dreamed,” he said.

After a closed-door meeting, the Nationals, wearing blue warmup shirts, emerged from the visitors’ dugout at about 12:50 p.m. and began to get loose. The gaggle of fans cheered. The team began stretching, then playing catch, and then they took batting practice after the Phillies.

Nationals President Tony Tavares, who still has plenty of work to do getting RFK Stadium ready for the home opener April 14, was happy just to get out of the office. He has been cooped up seven days a week for seven weeks tending to every last detail involved in relocating a franchise.

“I feel like I’m in work-release,” he said. “The sun’s shining, not a cloud in the sky. It’s a great day for baseball.”

Mr. Tavares said he likes that the Nationals are being picked to finish last in the National League East by the so-called “experts.”

“We’ll show people we’re better than that,” he said.

Yesterday, however, was not that day.

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