- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Washington Nationals’ first real Opening Day at RFK didn’t seem at all like the real thing.

Where was the sellout crowd? Where was Goldman’s Band, the otherwise anonymous blowers and bangers who showed up each April at Griffith Stadium in bygone days? Where were the 10-cent programs, 25-cent Cokes and 50-cent Briggs Pigs? Most important, where was the president of the United States? It used to be a lovely and cherished tradition: the First Fan tossing out the First Ball on the First Day.

So what happened? On Opening Day, the president belongs at the ballpark, especially now that he doesn’t have to go to Baltimore or some other boondock. This marks the second straight year that Bush has played hooky here, making him the first president since Richard Nixon to do so. And we all know what happened to Richard Nixon.

The White House’s official explanation was that Bush had a scheduling conflict, which is government-speak for saying he didn’t want to bother coming. With the president’s approval ratings down around the same level as the Nats’ pennant prospects, the thought arises that maybe he was afraid of being booed — although a White House spokeswoman denied it.

I doubt that would have happened, because most fans hereabouts have too much respect for the presidency, if not necessarily this president. But even if it did happen, so what? In 1951, President Truman was dealt a large helping of raspberries because the opener came a few days after he fired popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur as supreme commander of the United Nations forces in Korea. Didn’t bother Harry; he just gave a big smile, a big wave and settled down to enjoy the ballgame (although the missus, Bess Truman, was said to be the biggest fan in the family).

Sometimes the presence of the president provided interesting sidelights. When White Sox outfielder Jim Rivera snared John F. Kennedy’s first toss in 1962, he scowled after returning the ball to JFK for a presidential signature.

“Nobody can read that [garbage],” he told the most important man in the free world. “Is that the way they taught you to write at Harvard? Gimme one I can show to people.” Laughing, Kennedy autographed another ball, more carefully this time.

Mickey Vernon, the old Senators first baseman who should be in the Hall of Fame but isn’t, joined Hank Thomas, grandson of the immortal Walter Johnson; Chuck Hinton, another former Senators star; and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty in tossing out first balls yesterday. With all respect to these esteemed gentleman, all four pitches didn’t begin to equal one by the chief occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Perhaps new manager Manny Acta should have let one of the quartet handle the real mound chores — even Vernon, who is nearly 89 — because nominal Nats ace John Patterson was about as effective against the Marlins as Floyd Patterson against Sonny Liston in the early 1960s.

Patterson lasted exactly 32/3 innings, allowing seven hits and six runs while throwing 80 pitches. By the time he departed in favor of somebody named Levale Speigner, the Marlins were ahead 6-0 in what eventually evolved as a 9-2 breeze.

Though the crowd of 40,389 roused itself briefly when the Nats scored a couple of runs, even the dullest of Bush’s meetings might have been more interesting than the proceedings at RFK.

Hey, do you suppose George W. knew something we didn’t? On the warmest Opening Day anybody could remember, there were few clouds in the sky but plenty on the Nats’ horizon. True, Opening Day is only 1/162nd of the long, long season, but if Patterson couldn’t get the job done … Ouch! Tonight the Nats will seek to get even with the world by sending Shawn Hill to the mound. If he can’t get that first victory, there are always the widely feared Matt Chico, Jerome Williams and Jason Bergmann, et al, to follow.

Double ouch! Considering that center fielder Nook Logan and shortstop Cristian Guzman departed with injuries, Opening Day 2007 was about as gloomy as possible for the unrelievedly sunshiny Acta’s debut as a skipper in the bigs. At first glance, all those predictions that the Nats will lose 100 or 110 games seem alarmingly accurate.

Yet the president is supposed to be a man of the people, through good times and bad, and he should have been there as an eyewitness to loss No. 1. After all, the Nats will be his hometown team, as well as ours, for two more years.

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