- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2017

Washington Nationals Manager Dusty Baker was up before the sun on Monday morning. His alarm was set for 6:30 a.m., but Baker was awake by 4. He was a bit restless.

“I wasn’t excited but something was happening, something woke me up,” Baker said.

It was Opening Day.

By 11 a.m. down at Nationals Park by the Southwest waterfront, lines stretched out from the gates along South Capitol and M Streets. Some doubled back on themselves until they were no longer lines but amorphous blobs of people. Some dallied, ogling the stilt-walkers in red, white and blue doling out hi-fives, while others pushed for pole position to pass through the turnstiles once they opened for a new year’s business.

“There’s nothing like Opening Day,” Baker said.

Baker would know. On Monday, when his Nationals and the Miami Marlins trotted onto the freshly manicured grounds for the first game of the 2017 season, Baker suited up for the 22nd Opening Day of his managerial career. They don’t blend together, he said, but they evoke similar feelings.

“You think about what the season will bring and the challenges that you’ve had in past years and every year is different,” Baker said. “The challenges are different. You think about the race. It’s the great race. It’s a race of endurance, it’s a race that only the strong, mentally and physically, you can survive this race. This is the marathon of all marathons.”

By 12:30, the opening ceremonies were underway. Pitcher Max Scherzer and second baseman Daniel Murphy were awarded their Cy Young and Silver Slugger awards from last season in front of all the fans.

There were five ceremonial first pitches, each one thrown by a member of a different branch of the U.S. military. The U.S. Army Brass Quintet performed the national anthem and “America The Beautiful” while the U.S. Armed Forces Color Guard unfurled the colors in centerfield. The U.S. Navy VFA-143 Pukin’ Dogs performed a flyover in their F/A-18E Super Hornets.

“The first pitch I thought was pretty cool, the flyover was awesome. Just that Patriotic feeling I think is associated with baseball, it’s even more magnified on Opening Day,” said shortstop Trea Turner, whose uncle helped organize the flyover.

While all this was going on, starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg was getting restless, too. Awards and pleasantries can interfere with a starter’s routine, and Strasburg waited over half an hour between his warm-up and when he actually took the mound.

“I think I went out there a little early and then ended up being ready well before the start of the game so I had to shut it down a couple of times in the bullpen, but that’s alright,” Strasburg said.

The game itself started right on time — Miami’s Edinson Volquez threw the first pitch at exactly 1:05 p.m. It was a nice day, a little overcast, but 66 degrees at the time of the first pitch.

Many had skipped work, or school, to be there, even though there will be plenty of hot summer nights spent here in the coming months.

“Everybody complains about the season being too long, sometimes the players, most of the time, sometimes the fans, and yet still when it’s over within a month they can’t wait until baseball starts again, you know what I mean?” Baker said. “Like, hey, give us some time!”

“And you know, when you think about the challenges of the season that you’re going to have to deal with, and there’s only going to be one winner, and you always think it’s going to be you. And you know, you run the race accordingly to how your lord wants the race to be run. You run it for a cause and a purpose and you play it for the people. The people of our country, the people of D.C. and this is what you’re playing for.”

The people — a sellout crowd of 42,744 — came out to watch them.

Before the game, General Manager Mike Rizzo walked around the tunnels underneath the stadium. He wore a navy suit and purple tie, greeted season ticket holders and hugged many of the stadium workers clad in team-issue jackets with the words “Ask Me!” printed on the back.

During the middle innings, a group of construction workers perched on the concrete framework and scaffolding atop an office building going up across the street took a break from their work to watch, dangling their legs off the edge of the building and looking down into the park.

Shortly before 4 p.m., the game was over. The Nationals won, Bryce Harper homered, and a lovely afternoon was delivered with baseball’s usual storybook flair. Soon will come a long summer, with hopes of a long autumn to follow, and the pomp and circumstance will have to be doled out more judiciously as the fresh start gives way to the 162-game slog.

Baker knows this as well, which means he knows to enjoy the moment while he can.

“It’s a beautiful game,” Baker said. “Ask me about it in August and, you know what I mean, it’ll be a little different. But to me, it’s Opening Day.”

• Nora Princiotti can be reached at nprinciotti@washingtontimes.com.

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