VIERA, Fla. — There was no champagne, no wild celebration in the Washington Nationals clubhouse yesterday.
The Nationals scored the franchise’s first exhibition victory, a 5-3 win over the hated New York Mets in their nationally televised spring debut. (Make no mistake about it: Once Pedro Martinez, who didn’t pitch yesterday, faces the Nationals a few times, the Mets will be their hated rivals).
“Act like you’ve done it before,” Nationals equipment manager Mike Wallace said.
But they haven’t done it before, at least not like this. Sure, these players have opened exhibition seasons before, but no one had done so in this Washington Nationals uniform. No Washington club had opened an exhibition season since the expansion Senators in 1971.
So this was special, and the players recognized it — right up to the first pitch. Then it became just another exhibition game.
By the time closer Chad Cordero struck out Luis Garcia and catcher Keith Osik dropped the ball and threw down to first for the final out, many of the Nationals already had left the park.
That’s what happens in exhibitions. Starters and pitchers who leave the game after a few innings dress and depart while the game is still going on. It is within the bounds of baseball protocol to do so in spring training — unlike what Sammy Sosa did in Chicago on the last day of the regular season — because the game is not supposed to mean anything.
But since every step in the return of baseball to Washington is being noted and written and recorded and talked about and relished, it was a day of firsts for the Washington Nationals.
The first pitch was thrown by Tony Armas Jr. The first hit was a single by Cristian Guzman. The first home run was a two-run blast by Jose Guillen.
What the day will be most remembered for, however, is the debut of the song, “We are the Washington Nationals.”
Just before the game at Space Coast Stadium, the sound system played a song written for the Nationals by a friend of general manager Jim Bowden, a headbanging tune that celebrates the return of baseball to Washington with lines like “Baseball is back in the capital city” and a chorus of “We are the Washington Nationals.”
It is not yet the official team song, but Bowden loved it.
“It was written by the guitar player with Blessid Union of Souls, Jeff Pence,” said Bowden, a rock star of a general manager in his own right. “He loves baseball and has a big heart. When I was with Cincinnati, he did a whole CD on his own and sent it to me. I think he should make some copies and sell it.”
Pence, who grew up outside Cincinnati as a Reds fan, said he was inspired to write a song for the Nationals when Bowden came to Washington.
“I have always loved baseball,” Pence said from a studio where he was working. “When I was growing up, I loved it more than music. This was a way for me to get involved in the game. I loved doing it in Cincinnati. It’s a lot of fun.”
Pence, who said he hopes to come see the Nationals later this spring, also was a prophet. His song includes a play-by-play segment in which Guillen hits a home run. That, of course, is just what Guillen did yesterday, sending a monster blast over the center-field Denny’s “Nothing Beats a Grand Slam” sign.
“That’s nice,” Guillen said of the reference in the song. “Hopefully, I will hear that lots of times this year.”
Outfielder Brad Wilkerson liked the tune as well.
“It’s pretty cool to have your own song,” he said. “We didn’t have a song in Montreal.”
They probably did, but it was most likely in French and Wilkerson just didn’t understand it. And for the final three years in Montreal, it probably had lyrics like “We spit on you, you American ballplayers.”
The most appropriate song title to describe yesterday, though, was “Happy Days are Here Again.”
“It felt good to get a game under your belt, to have the Washington Nationals across your chest, representing a new city,” manager Frank Robinson said. “It was all good to get that up and out of the way, even though the main thing comes during the regular season. It felt good today.”
It wasn’t all good. The leadoff hitter hasn’t quite gotten the idea the Nationals don’t want the bat to leave his shoulders until he has two strikes on him. Endy Chavez made two outs on eight pitches yesterday, and if he keeps doing that, the song he will be hearing is “We are the New Orleans Zephyrs.”
Despite the debut of the Nationals song, it wasn’t exactly a great day by the ballpark music board operator. In the middle of the sixth inning, he played “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” That’s not a tune Nationals fans need to hear, though it didn’t seem to stir the crowd at Space Coast Stadium one way or another.
“You know, that is the song they play in the seventh-inning stretch at Baltimore Orioles games,” I told the operator. He replied, “Well, it’s a Space Coast Stadium song, too.”
I’d lose the song, son, and give Jeff Pence a call. He has the right idea.