- - Tuesday, April 3, 2018

When you drive down South Capitol Street or Interstate 295 or across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, or walk out of the Naval Yard Metro station, you are treated to the sight of Nationals Park, where more than 40,000 people will gather Thursday for the 11th home Opening Day of the Washington Nationals.

It’s a glorious sight, one we’ve been fortunate enough to have since the ballpark opened in 2008 — three years after the Montreal Expos relocated to the District, and 37 years after the Washington Senators left the city.

It will be the center of the baseball universe come July, when the ballpark hosts the All-Star Game.

AUDIO: Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez with Thom Loverro

The world will have a chance then to see what fans of the Nationals already know: That the park and the development that has finally taken hold around it have transformed an entire section of the city.

When you first see Nationals Park Thursday, take time to savor the moment. It’s too easy to forget the decades that went by when the city missed out on Opening Day excitement.

There are thousands of pages and documents stuffed in City Hall filing cabinets detailing the effort to bring baseball back after the Washington Senators left town following the 1971 season. So many failed campaigns, so many good people devoting their time to create what we have now in this city 81 times a year — plus, with this Nationals team, postseason baseball.

All of them had a hand in building this ballpark.

From the early days, when the San Diego Padres seemed on the verge of moving to Washington just three years after the Senators left, to the lost expansion battles, watching teams awarded to cities that are failing baseball like Miami and Tampa, to the hostage relocation threats where teams used Washington to build ballparks in Seattle, Pittsburgh and Houston — all that work led to the annual celebration of baseball now every April in the city.

No other city in America sustained the desire to reclaim a sports franchise it had once lost for as long as Washington had — 33 years of fighting, with different mayors, different business leaders, picking up the baton each time when it had been knocked out of the city’s hands by the powers that be in baseball.

The fight passed on from one generation to the next. There was a void that clearly needed to be filled, despite protestations from those nonbelievers who couldn’t see the value of rallying people together 81 times a year in the same place in this city — an oftentimes divided city — to commune for a few hours over the joy of baseball.

In this day and age — when we are all isolated inside the walls of our own kingdoms, where we can work and order whatever we need, never seeing our neighbors — the value of getting out and collectively assembling for something as relatively calming and uniting as a baseball game is greater than ever.

There was a baseball team just 35 miles up the road in Baltimore that could have filled the void.

When the Senators left, the Baltimore Orioles were one of the most successful teams in baseball, having been to four of the previous six World Series, winning two. They would continue to be a perennial playoff team, going to the World Series in 1979 and winning it in 1983. They were owned by a Washington icon, famed trial lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, who brought the 1983 World Series trophy to Duke Zeibert’s restaurant in Washington to display.

It wasn’t enough. The Orioles never truly filled the void. That was another city’s legacy — not Washington, which, over the time of baseball’s absence, had grown into a city that Major League Baseball could no longer ignore.

The ballpark has turned into an economic engine for the city. D.C. Council Member Jack Evans told me on my Cigars & Curveballs podcast in May 2016 that at that time, the city was bringing in about $35 million annually in ballpark revenue — about $21 million annually more than what they need to pay the yearly debt service.

The park has fueled a dramatic rise property values around the ballpark, and the taxes the city collects from those properties and other tax revenue in the ballpark district.

And Washington gets to celebrate all of this now every April — when baseball returns for another Opening Day.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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