- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Were it not for the elaborate pre-game festivities, Washington Nationals fans might have mistaken yesterday’s contest against the Florida Marlins as delivery from the dog days of August.

But it was, in fact, Opening Day at RFK Stadium, and temperatures in the low 80s lured a sweaty 40,389 to the ballpark for a lackluster 9-2 loss by the Nationals that featured a shaky performance by No. 1 starter John Patterson and injuries to outfielder Nook Logan and shortstop Cristian Guzman.

Although the Nationals’ performance did nothing to fend off the critics who predict a difficult season for the team and its fans, yesterday’s game was — like others at RFK in the past three seasons — a celebration of baseball in a city that went more than three decades without a team at all.

It was a game of firsts — with RFK Stadium playing host to a season opener for the first time since the franchise moved to the District and the family of Theodore N. Lerner celebrating its first opener as owners of the Nationals.

“At every game, there seems to be the first time for something,” said Lerner’s son and Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner as he watched batting practice from the field. “It’s been a very exciting time for myself, my family and the organization.”

Yesterday was also a game of lasts, as the game likely was the final opener at the stadium.

“Opening Day is always great no matter where you are,” said Nationals President Stan Kasten, whose team is scheduled to move to a new ballpark along South Capitol Street next spring. “But beyond the ordinary significance, this is the last season at RFK and this is the last Opening Day at RFK, so there’s a historical significance.”

The Nationals injected history into pre-game activities that included ceremonial first pitches by former Washington Senators Mickey Vernon and Chuck Hinton, as well as Hank Thomas, the grandson of Senators Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson.

“My grandfather was the recipient of many presidential tosses, so for me to do this is unbelievable,” said Thomas, who operates a vintage baseball memorabilia business in Arlington. “It’s a kick. A lot of fun.”

Nationals fans also got a glimpse of the future when 22-year-old third baseman Ryan Zimmerman recorded the team’s first hit of the season by tripling with two outs in the first inning. But the team’s first run came three innings later when outfielder Austin Kearns scored on a sacrifice fly by catcher Brian Schneider. By then, the Nationals and Patterson had given up six runs to the Marlins, including a two-run, upper-deck home run by third baseman Miguel Cabrera.

Injury added itself to insult in the fourth inning, when Logan hyperextended his left foot into the outfield wall in tracking down a fly ball. Guzman strained his left hamstring an inning later running down the first-base line on a groundout. Neither injury appears too serious, but both players will be re-evaluated today.

“We didn’t start the way we wanted,” said first-year Nationals manager Manny Acta, whose parents flew in from the Dominican Republican to see his first game at the helm. “We didn’t want to be playing catch-up baseball from the get-go.”

Fans looking for a break from the hot sun or the home team’s struggles might have gotten little reprieve on the RFK Stadium concourses, where lines for food and drink stood as many as 30 people deep.

“This is how it was last year at the beginning, remember?” said one frustrated fan as he walked by a Stars and Stripes Brewery stand on the 300 level, where a long line made it nearly impossible to walk past.

Annandale High School senior Teddy Lengel and two of his friends had seats in section 512 but had to move down two levels to find a less crowded place to eat.

“We came down because the lines were too long up there,” said Teddy, as he scooped up baked beans from the Red, Hot & Blue restaurant.

But other fans said they noticed a distinct difference in the quality and speed of service.

“It’s been easy,” said Dick Belanger, a lawyer and Nationals season ticket holder from Chevy Chase, as he munched on a crab cake sandwich from the Terrace Food Court. “Much better than a couple years ago, when the president was here.”

For the most part, fans said they were pleased to see more food options, including crab cakes and more choices for vegetarians. But some concession stands temporarily ran out of popular items such as sausage sandwiches and margaritas.

For some fans, the crowds inside the stadium were less problematic than those outside.

District-based journalists Dave Leavitt and Mark Burnham decided to buy tickets when they arrived at the ballpark. They scored seats only after enduring a line more than 150 people deep.

“I was surprised at the long lines,” said Mr. Leavitt, who said he never had problems walking up and buying tickets in the past. “I was not expecting this. We were really surprised at how long we had to wait.”

With the Nationals ownership focused on rebuilding the franchise for long-term success, the team’s fans may have to get used to waiting, particularly if yesterday’s game is a guide.

“I’m a believer in the Kasten-Lerner philosophy,” Mr. Belanger said. “I think this is going to be a long, dry season, but they’re going in the right direction.”

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