- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — Patrick Lewis wasn’t sure what possessed him to pack his pregnant wife and three boys into the family car at 4 a.m. Tuesday and embark on a 12-hour drive down Interstate 95 to this little planned community on Florida’s eastern coast.

But the 36-year-old Alexandria resident said of his 1,000-mile trek to see the Washington Nationals’ first-ever spring training game: “I just had to be here. This is just the greatest thing. Ever.”

Millions of Washington baseball fans probably shared Mr. Lewis’ sentiments yesterday, whether they were among the 7,558 fans who witnessed the Nationals’ 5-3 victory over the New York Mets at Space Coast Stadium or they watched the exhibition game on ESPN.

This was cause for celebration, the first major-league baseball game featuring a team from Washington since the Senators departed nearly 34 years ago.

It didn’t matter that it didn’t count in the standings or that the final five innings were played by backups and minor leaguers. It took something more powerful than that to bring so many people together.

“I feel it more than I can express it in words, but it’s just so exciting,” said Marissa Alcala, another Alexandria resident, who managed to score second-row tickets for herself and her husband, Ray. “It’s historic. How could you not be here?”

The historic nature of the game was all too evident to the men who wore the Nationals’ white home uniforms and red caps for the first time. Those who were with the club in past seasons as the Montreal Expos weren’t used to sellout crowds and overflow media contingents for an exhibition game. The Expos frequently played in front of crowds smaller than yesterday’s during regular-season games in Montreal.

“It’s very rare that you get this type of hoopla around a spring training game,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “So you know it’s something kind of special when you have this type of coverage and this type of excitement about an exhibition game.”

The Nationals’ starting nine took the field for the first time at 1:01 p.m., greeted by a standing ovation and a new, headbanging theme song proclaiming “We are the Washington Nationals.”

Five minutes later, right-hander Tony Armas Jr. delivered the first pitch in club history — a ball outside to Mets leadoff hitter Jose Reyes.

Right fielder Jose Guillen, one of general manager Jim Bowden’s key offseason acquisitions, brought the crowd back to its feet in the fourth inning with a towering, two-run homer to right-center field. Mets third baseman Miguel Cairo’s sixth-inning error allowed Jamey Carroll to score from third, giving Washington the lead for good. And 22-year-old closer Chad Cordero sealed the victory by striking out the side in the ninth.

“It’s new life for us,” left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. “The crowd was really good. It was special for me to be a part of it.”

Those fans who made the trip down from Washington loved every minute of it.

“I’ve been waiting for this, like everybody in D.C., for over 30 years,” said Stephen Klatsky, 57, of Alexandria, who arrived at the ballpark at 8 a.m., well before the parking lots opened.

Mr. Klatsky, a New York native who moved to Washington in 1974, three years after the Senators left for Texas, used to be a Baltimore Orioles season-ticket holder. Not anymore. He was decked out in full Nationals gear and said he plans to groom his young grandson into a die-hard fan of his new favorite team.

“I’m one of [Orioles owner] Peter Angelos’ nightmares because I’m not going to be going up there very often anymore,” Mr. Klatsky said. “It’s good to have a hometown team, not to have to share one with Baltimore.”

Some of those in attendance had a rich connection to Washington baseball history.

Miller Young is the great-grandson of Nicholas E. Young, manager of the original Washington Nationals from 1871 to 1872 and one of the co-founders of the National League.

The Damascus, Md., resident left town at 2 a.m. Monday, made a brief stop in South Carolina and stayed in Viera just long enough to watch yesterday’s game before hitting the road again. Even though he has to be back at work tomorrow morning, Mr. Young felt an obligation to be here in person.

“I’ve been waiting 30-something years,” he said. “It’s in my blood. I thought with the reincarnation of the Washington Nationals, out of due respect to my great-grandfather, I should be here.”

Many of those same fans will make the much-shorter trip to Philadelphia on April 4 for the Nationals’ regular-season opener against the Phillies. And 10 days later, a full house at RFK Stadium at long last will get to cheer for the home team when the Nationals play host to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Yesterday’s proceedings only served as a trial run for the real hoopla that awaits next month.

“This is as close as you’re going to get to the real thing,” Robinson said. “This is kind of a rehearsal in a way. We know the next step is the real thing, and that’s what’s exciting about this.”

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