- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

As far as we are given to know, Walter Johnson wasn’t present last night for the official first game at the ballpark that should have been named for him.

Neither were Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris, Joe Cronin, Frank Howard or any of the other stars who wore Washington uniforms in days and decades gone by — except in historical photos displayed on the main concourse at Nationals Park.

And except, perhaps, in spirit.

When Odalis Perez fired his first pitch to Kelly Johnson at 8:21, it was much more symbolic and significant than President Bush’s ceremonial toss moments earlier.

The beginning of serious combat in the Nationals’ glittering new park on the Anacostia Waterfront meant that never again will the nation’s capital be threatened with the loss of the national pastime. Millions of fans will flock to Southeast to watch Manny Acta’s team perform this season in a facility that might have cost the District $700 million to build when all the figures are in.

If all the positive portents are realized, the Nationals will become one of major league baseball’s best franchises and its new home one of the game’s prime showplaces. Then the idea of moving a Washington team to the hinterlands, as Calvin Griffith did in 1961 and Bob Short in 1971, will seem as ridiculous as the Redskins returning to their Boston birthplace.

But last night, as the ESPN cameras and lights all over the city winked on, it was a time for now, a time to rejoice that a new season and a new stadium were at hand.

Many in the crowd came early while daylight remained and the chill breezes of nighttime waited their turn.

These fans strolled along the concourse and studied the pictorial history of baseball in the city. They patronized food stands with such cutesy names as Taste of the Majors, Slice Down the Line and Change Up Chicken. They posed for pictures with the Racing Presidents; of course Teddy, the one who never wins, was the most popular.

Meanwhile, in the immaculate bowels of the park, Manny Acta smiled benevolently at a media horde and allowed as how, yes, he has more confidence in himself than he did as a rookie skipper a year ago — and I have a lot more confidence in my ballclub, too.

What did he like best about Nationals Park?

I like everything.

Would he care to make a prediction on the Nats’ record this season?

I’m bad at making predictions and worse at believing them.

In the Nats’ clubhouse — an area large enough to hold a political convention — questions were addressed to a pitcher who would not be participating that evening and a first baseman who would.

I’m disappointed not to be starting the first game, said Shawn Hill, who would have done so if not for springtime tightness in his right forearm. It would have been nice, but I never set my mind to [doing] it. Just so I get 30 starts this season, I’ll be fine.

And so, probably, will the Nats.

On the other side of the clubhouse, Nick Johnson rubbed a bat and struggled to express how it felt to be in the lineup again after missing all of 2007 because of a broken leg suffered the previous September.

I’m real excited. … There have been a lot of ups and downs. … I put in a lot of hard work. … The injury? All you can do is put it out of your mind.

And so it went in the capital of the free world on an Opening Night graced by the presence of the 43rd president of the United States, two teams of the best baseball players in the universe and a sellout crowd to whom all things seemed possible.

Baseball people try to pretend Opening Days and Nights are routine, merely 1/162nd of a grind that lasts until leaves fall in October. They lie. Who among us has not wished he or she could erase something in the past and begin anew?

And so all openers are special — especially this one.

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