- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006


The Washington Nationals worked out yesterday at Shea Stadium before a crowd that was probably bigger than the one that watched Saturday night’s final exhibition game at Camden Yards.

The New York Mets held an open workout for its season ticket holders, who flocked to see a dress rehearsal for one of the greatest annual events in all of sports — baseball’s Opening Day.

Football may be king, but there is no particular aura surrounding the first regular-season game despite the NFL’s best efforts to turn it into an event with rock concerts and other sideshows. If there is any symbolism to the start of football season, it is that winter is close at hand.

People barely notice the opening of basketball and hockey seasons or else have a hard time distinguishing when one season ends and another begins.

But baseball’s Opening Day always has the feel of pomp and circumstance, even though every team plays 161 more games — the good ones more than that. It has the whiff of spring and of hope and of dreams come true, even after you have been through 50 of them.

A half-century ago, Nationals manager Frank Robinson celebrated his first Opening Day with the Cincinnati Reds, and despite playing in 2,808 games, managing in 2,079 and watching hundreds of others as a front office executive or in some other baseball capacity, he is still excited about the first game of the 2006 season today.

“Every Opening Day is special to me,” Robinson said. “When they don’t become special to you, it’s time for you to get out of the game. You get butterflies, and can’t wait to get started. You look forward to it from the time the season ends until the next Opening Day.”

Robinson’s first major league Opening Day came April 17, 1956 — Can you believe opening the season on April 17? — at Crosley Field in Cincinnati against the St. Louis Cardinals. He remembers every bit of it.

“I remember my first Opening Day very well,” Robinson said. “We lost 4-2 to the Cardinals on a two-run home run. I remember my first at-bat, a double, missed a home run by a couple of feet. I had an intentional walk and another hit and went 2-for-3, and I thought I was on my way to the Hall of Fame.”

Robinson was trying to illustrate how cocky he felt after that performance, but indeed he was right. He was on his way to the Hall of Fame.

“Not really,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t that easy. I went about 0-for-23 sometime after that.”

But that’s Opening Day. A 20-year old who played baseball any way he could seven days a week on the fields and playgrounds of Oakland can think about someday being in the Hall of Fame after his first Opening Day. It is a day of possibilities, not limitations.

Two Washington Nationals players will enjoy their first major league Opening Day today — third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and center fielder Brandon Watson. They will be introduced before a packed house on the biggest stage in the world, New York.

They have different views on the event, and different expectations, illustrated by the way they both play the game.

“It’s a special day,” Zimmerman said. “But I expect it will be like any other new thing — exciting for about an inning or two, and then it is just like any other game.”

He doesn’t have any family caravan heading up to New York for the game.

“I know some people who live in New York who will be coming to the game, but my family is planning to come to the home opener in D.C.,” he said. “I expect the adrenaline will be going a little more, but it’s just like the first college game you ever play and stuff like that. You settle down and just play.”

But Zimmerman is kidding himself. He doesn’t even remember who he played against in his first college game. Robinson remembers where he hit in the lineup in 1956 for his first Opening Day — seventh. He wouldn’t see that spot too many more times over his career.

The speedy Watson, though, is a little more pumped up about the day.

“I’ve watched opening days on TV and how everyone is so excited, and now I get to be a part of it,” he said. “I can’t wait. I am really looking forward to it.”

His father, Sam, will be at the game, so the two of them can share the moment they both dreamed of.

“That will be special,” he said. “This is something we have been looking forward to for a long time.”

It is something fans and players both can share — the excitement of Opening Day. After a winter of political battles over the new ballpark lease in the District, today’s game will have the additional excitement of the second season in baseball’s return to Washington and new faces like Zimmerman and Watson.

There will be many more Nationals players in the coming years, but none will hold the place that Brad Wilkerson, Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson, Jose Guillen, Vinny Castilla, Terrmel Sledge, Brian Schneider, Cristian Guzman and Livan Hernandez have in the hearts and minds of the Washington baseball community.

They composed the first lineup for the Nationals, and there is nothing like your first Opening Day.

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