- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2007

Chad Cordero stared in for the sign from Brian Schneider. At the plate stood Jayson Werth, hoping to complete a last-ditch rally by driving in the tying runners perched on first and second bases.

The Washington Nationals led the Philadelphia Phillies 5-3 with two outs in the ninth, and RFK Stadium was bouncing and swaying one last time.

Inside a crowded home dugout, Manny Acta noticed team owner Ted Lerner nervously waiting for the final out to be recorded so he could take part in postgame ceremonies. Acta started to worry.

“Ted is just standing there waiting for the game to be over,” the manager said. “And I’m like, ‘Come on, Chief. You know the guy’s 81 years old. He doesn’t need to be put through this.’ ”

It was perhaps appropriate that the final ballgame at RFK went down to the final pitch, that Cordero closed down the old girl with one more ninth-inning escape act and that the final score was identical to that of the Nationals’ first game here in 2005 against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Washington’s tough-as-nails reliever blew a fastball past Werth, the Nationals (including a relieved Lerner) gathered on the field to celebrate a narrow victory and a crowd of 40,519 erupted with glee after the home team won the last game in this park.

“You don’t want to leave RFK on a bad note,” Cordero said. “To be able to go out there and get this win, it really means a lot to us.”

A day of reflection and celebration was highlighted by the Nationals’ come-from-behind win. Trailing 2-1 in the sixth, they tied the game on Austin Kearns’ RBI single up the middle, then took the lead when Phillies reliever Geoff Geary plunked Jesus Flores with the bases loaded.

Flores, who had to leave the game with a badly bruised left elbow, said the payoff made the pain worth it.

“Oh yeah, for sure,” the rookie catcher said. “That’s why I was there, to try to hit the ball and bring the run in. He hit me, but I can do nothing about that.”

Another RBI single by Robert Fick and a sacrifice fly by Brian Schneider in the eighth added a couple of insurance runs and set the stage for Cordero to close it out in the ninth, even if he left a few hearts fluttering during those final tense moments.

“I really wanted it to be easier,” Acta said. “But we got it done. He got it done. That’s what’s important.”

The Washington victory, preventing the Phillies from completing a four-game sweep, capped a memorable afternoon on East Capitol Street. The largest crowd of the season packed itself into this multipurpose facility that saw its first baseball game (Senators 4, Tigers 1) on April 9, 1962.

Seven former Senators players, headlined by slugger Frank Howard and right-hander Dick Bosman, took the field with their current counterparts. Bosman threw out the ceremonial first pitch as Howard (the previous face of Washington baseball) talked baseball and mammoth home runs with the current face of the franchise. The 6-foot-7 “Capital Punisher” left quite an impression on the youngster.

“He’s a big guy,” the 6-foot-3 Zimmerman said. “You don’t realize how big he is. Now I can kind of believe those white seats a little bit more.”

Nobody reached the upper deck in this game, nor did anyone clear RFK’s deep fences. Philadelphia’s Chase Utley had the final homer here: a solo shot in the first inning of Saturday night’s game. The last Washington home run? D’Angelo Jimenez on Tuesday.

The upper deck did draw some attention yesterday, though, when fans unfurled three long banners in center field that read “Short still stinks,” a reference to the two similar banners that were displayed Sept. 30, 1971, the last game played by the Senators before owner Bob Short moved them to Texas.

That brought some chuckles and cheers from the crowd, but the biggest roar of the day was reserved for the 10-foot-tall likeness of Teddy Roosevelt, who sadly failed to win the presidents’ race yet again. While his competitors ran down the right-field line warning track, Teddy was shown on the video board all alone at the Nationals’ new ballpark, seven months premature.

Of course, the actual baseball still mattered most to a good portion of the crowd. So when Cordero danced with danger in the ninth, allowing one run to score on a double, walk and RBI single, the scene turned tense. But as each of the six strikes Cordero threw to Wes Helms and Werth cracked into catcher Brian Schneider’s mitt, the cheers turned louder and louder.

And when that final strike punctuated the Nationals’ final victory at RFK — they wound up going 122-121 over three seasons — the place exploded one last time.

As a drawn-out postgame ceremony — with Acta and Lerner digging up home plate to transport it to the new ballpark — wrapped up and a few straggling fans took one last look at the stadium before departing for good, the Nationals tried to grapple with their mixed emotions. Thrilled to move to their new ballpark in 2008 while cognizant of what the last three seasons at RFK meant, they weren’t quite sure what to feel.

“We’re excited to get out of here and be able to go to a new stadium,” Fick said. “I’m sure the fans feel the same way about it. But there’s been a lot of history in this stadium. I’m sure glad I got to play in it.”

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