- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

We don’t know where the Nationals will finish the season in the National League East standings, but we do know where they will start it.

In Florida.

For shame.

For most of seven decades, the Washington Senators opened the season at home with flags flying, Goldman’s band tootling and a capacity crowd at Griffith or D.C./RFK Stadium reveling in this happy harbinger of spring.

Usually, the president of the United States, ranging from William Howard Taft to Richard Milhous Nixon, was on hand to toss out a ceremonial first pitch and pretend the national pastime was the most important thing on his plate.

Alas, those distant days are gone forever - at least on an annual basis. In their first five seasons, the Nats have opened at home exactly twice (2007 and 2008). In this regard, the District is - can you believe it? - just like any other major league town.

Has somebody in Major League Baseball - this means you, Bud Selig - been knocked in the noggin by too many fastballs?

On Sunday, the Nats’ lidlifter - admittedly a hoary word - will be at Miami’s Dolphin Stadium, a sterile, football-first facility that will be replaced by a new ballpark in three years. I hope the crowd is large enough for the Marlins to open the usually unused upper deck.

In previous seasons, the Nats have opened at Philly’s Citizens Bank Park and New York’s old Shea Stadium, with the home opener coming days and days later.

Not all baseball traditions are worth preserving, but this one is: For most of the 20th century, the Senators and Reds always opened at home because one city was the nation’s capital and the other was the site of baseball’s first professional team in 1869.

If the schedule called for them to start the season on the road, the clubs would open at home one day earlier than everybody else. No problem.

Now, according to a Major League Baseball spokesman, the Nats and Orioles will alternate opening at home. Say what? Pardon me if I sound like a snob, but Baltimore ain’t exactly the District when it comes to being a world capital. After all, the Founding Fathers didn’t put the White House in Catonsville or Glen Burnie.

As a D.C. native, I’ve experienced more than 50 Opening Days, and each was a thrill. Now, though, we won’t get to see the hopefully improved Nats on their own turf until April 13, when their record theoretically could be 0-6. I don’t know about you, but this seems horribly wrong to me. Heck, you might as well have the first ball thrown out by, say, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs rather than President Obama.

So I’m a baseball curmudgeon - so what? Somebody has to stand up for what’s right against people like Stan Kasten, the Nats’ sadly misguided president.

“I’ve been told we’ll have a July Fourth game every year,” Kasten said. “Frankly, that’s a more important tradition than Opening Day. Given the way the sport is now - the season opens on Sunday night, and there’s a Monday tripleheader [on ESPN] - I don’t think Opening Day has the significance it once did. What’s important is that the president of the United States comes to the first home game, whether it’s the next day or the next week.”

We’ll have to make allowances for Stan, I guess, because he was born in New Jersey rather than in these parts. As an outsider, he ranks alongside Tony Tavares, who was the Nats’ president when the club was owned by MLB. Asked once about the same burning issue, Tavares replied, “I didn’t even know it was traditional for Washington to open the season at home.”

Gentlemen, start your history books.

And I have a bit of unsolicited advice for Kasten: Get on the same page as your boss.

“As a young man, I always looked forward to missing school to attend Opening Day at D.C./RFK Stadium with my dad,” said Mark Lerner, the Nats’ principal owner. “I have such fond memories of this tradition in Washington. The team is certainly eager to open our season every year at home in Nationals Park.”

The reason for these dissimilar viewpoints is simple: Mark Lerner and his father, Ted, did grow up in the District. That simple fact is enough to make folks like us shudder when a D.C. ballclub plays its first game in the hinterland.

The occasion was especially memorable when the customarily comatose Senators opened a day early and won - as they did in 1954 after reigning batting champion Mickey Vernon beat the lordly Yankees with a 10th-inning home run over the towering right-field wall at Griffith Stadium.

“The Senators are in first place in the American League!” play-by-play man Bob Wolff chortled at game’s end - a pronouncement almost as startling as if President Dwight Eisenhower had put in a good word for once and future election rival Adlai Stevenson. Instead, Ike summoned Vernon to the presidential box, where the hometown hero received a presidential handshake and a kiss on the cheek from Mamie Eisenhower.

It was a very big deal, you see. Opening Day in the District always was.

Now, unfortunately, it’s a different time - so the Nats will play their first serious game at a stadium located on Dan Marino Boulevard rather than South Capitol Street. Of course, the opener is only one game of 162, or so baseball people claim. Then again, the first of anything is a little more special than what follows.

What will befall the Nationals in their fifth season? They lost 102 games last season, the pitchers are untested, many of the hitters unproven, and the team plays in an extremely tough division.

But blooming spring is a time for optimism, warranted or otherwise. Let’s squeeze our eyes shut, cross our fingers and predict a 76-86 record that leaves hope for continued advancement in 2010 and beyond.

This would make it a rewarding season for those who still cherish baseball and the fact that once more it is being played in these parts. I just wish it began where it should - right here.


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