- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Washington Nationals will not open the regular season at home each year, as major league teams in the District traditionally have done every spring.

During most of their 71 seasons in the American League, the two incarnations of the Washington Senators began play at home each year. Bands played, capacity crowds cheered and usually the president of the United States made the ceremonial first pitch.

It was a big deal, a very big deal. But now perhaps the opening of the season in Washington will become a relic.

The Nationals did not open at home this year, will not do so next year and perhaps never will do so on a regular basis. They are tentatively scheduled to begin next season against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.

According to Katy Feeney, Major League Baseball senior vice president for scheduling, “There are no plans to have the Nationals start the season at home every year.”

“Our traditional opener is in Cincinnati [where the first professional team was established in 1869],” Miss Feeney said last week. That would mean the first pitch of the season might be tossed out by a Cincinnati mayor or a city council member rather than President Bush and his successors in the District.

Until the expansion Senators left for Texas in 1972, baseball customarily staged two traditional openers, with the Senators and Reds always starting at home. When the regular schedule called for them to open on the road, the two clubs would stage home openers a day ahead of everybody else.

“It was fun for us,” said longtime Washington broadcaster Bob Wolff, “because if Washington won, at the end of the game you could always say, ‘The Senators are in first place in the American League’ — and you never got to say that any other time.”

Mr. Wolff, now doing commentaries for a Long Island cable station, feels Major League Baseball is missing the point badly by not having the Nationals’ opener in Washington.

Opening on the road this season was excusable because the schedule was set before the Montreal Expos were moved here.

“Baseball has always been careful to cede proper [respect] to government,” Mr. Wolff said. “Having the president open the season has always been very special. You don’t see him at the opening of concerts or supermarkets, do you? Baseball had a very significant tradition going and shouldn’t waste it.”

There is nothing to prevent the chief executive from appearing at the first game in Washington whenever it occurs, as President Bush did this past April after the Nationals had played nine games on the road. But that doesn’t have the impact of a season opener, traditionally a harbinger of spring for many Americans.

Baseball pioneer Clark Griffith, who managed and later owned the original Senators, persuaded American League founder Ban Johnson to open the season in Washington nearly every year after President William Howard Taft threw out the first ball at other games in 1910 and 1912. Taft would have done the honors on Opening Day in 1912, but he had a very good reason to skip that game — the sinking of the Titanic a few days earlier.

Subsequent presidents doing the honors on Opening Day were Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Since 1972, some have tossed out balls on Opening Day in Baltimore or elsewhere.

“I can understand why baseball doesn’t want to be locked into a Washington opening every year,” said Clark Griffith II, a Minneapolis lawyer and grandson of the Senators’ legendary Old Fox. “For one thing, it might tick off [Orioles owner Peter] Angelos. And in the old days, Washington was the southernmost city in the majors, but now the season starts a couple of weeks earlier and there are lots of warmer places.

“But … yes, opening the season in Washington was nice.”

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