Wednesday, March 2, 2005

VIERA, Fla. — For Brian Schneider, even putting on his uniform in the clubhouse for today’s game against the New York Mets at Space Coast Stadium will be memorable. It might be just an exhibition game, but it will be an exhibition game unlike any other.

Schneider will be among the first group of players to wear the new Washington Nationals uniform in a game of any sort, another milestone worth noting in the historic return of baseball to Washington.

“It’s real cool,” said Schneider, who will catch starting pitcher Tony Armas Jr. “It is great to be part of the first group. This team went through a lot to get to this point. It will really put the exclamation point on the move, going out there and playing in a Nationals uniform.”

A celebration of baseball has emerged from the turmoil of the three years since the Montreal Expos were sold to Major League Baseball. Amid the steroid stories and the descending ugliness of the Yankees-Red Sox feud, the Washington Nationals stand out as something all of baseball can embrace, and their story will take center stage at 1:05 p.m. today in a game televised on ESPN (expect some long lunch hours and half-sick days all around Washington).

As exhibition openers go, it is as big as it gets.

“For us players, the big picture is that we are trying to get ready and prepare for the season,” outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. “But we know it is a big deal for fans back in Washington, and we’re glad it is on national television. We are looking forward to going out there.”

It is a big deal, though, for the players as well. They will be wearing the game uniforms they will display for real at the home opener in Washington on April 14, one of just five times this spring they are scheduled to wear them.

And Nationals manager Frank Robinson, who has been through 33 exhibition season openers as a player and manager, recognizes the extra significance. Save for pitcher Livan Hernandez, the players expected to be in the starting lineup Opening Day on April 4 in Philadelphia will be taking the field today: first baseman Nick Johnson, second baseman Jose Vidro, shortstop Cristian Guzman, third baseman Vinny Castilla, left fielder Wilkerson, center fielder Endy Chavez, right fielder Jose Guillen and catcher Schneider.

These players, the first to start an exhibition game for the Washington Nationals, will begin building a new baseball tradition in Washington, though they are 1,000 miles away in Viera. And make no mistake about it, they have been charged with building a tradition. Robinson gave that charge to his players when he addressed the team on the first day of spring training:

“When you put on the Washington Nationals uniform, have pride in wearing that uniform,” Robinson said. “Understand it is a privilege to put that uniform on. Wear it correctly. Be proud of it. Don’t let anyone put down the uniform or this team or the city that you represent when you have that uniform on. Tell them how proud you are and that you won’t take any negative talk about the team or the organization.

“That is what it is all about, not only representing yourself but the city, the team, the organization and the fans. You want the fans to be proud of you. You want them to come out and root for you. Each time you put on the Nationals uniform, you should be thankful that you can put on a major league uniform, a Nationals uniform.”

They will put on that Nationals uniform today, and it will feel different than any other uniform. Those who wore the Montreal Expos uniforms as if they were funeral garb for the past three years recognize that.

“We are lucky to be part of this,” Schneider said.

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