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Thomas Boswell

Most Comforted By the Surroundings

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page D01

For hard-core Washington baseball fans, Opening Day arrived 27 hours early. For us, the start of the Nationals era came around noon yesterday. That's when a Washington team ran onto the field at RFK Stadium for the first time since 1971.

Since no cheering is allowed in the press box, I stayed in the upper deck unreserved section beyond first base in one of the seats with a panoramic view that I loved in my high school and college years -- a bargain then and still a steal at $8. My teeth chattered, since the wind and the temperature were both in the high 40s. Or maybe there was some other chill at work.

Many will say that Opening Day arrives today in Philadelphia, when the Nationals play their first regular season game against the Phillies. And others will insist the true home opener will be on April 14, when every imaginable person who wants to see and be seen will be on hand including, presumably, the president. A few lobbyists will probably make it, too.

Those will be fine symbolic celebratory days. But they're easy. Anybody can see their value. They're hyped to the sky. What happened yesterday was a ritual of return that appealed to the slightly addled, the baseball-addicted and the truly devoted -- for the people, in short, who simply had to be there because it was unthinkable after 34 years to be anywhere else.

If you want an approximation of the Nats' bedrock fan base, this game's attendance hinted at it: 25,453. It'll be interesting to see if there are more than a handful of smaller crowds all season. "Last year in Montreal, we probably had about six crowds this big all year," chuckled Brad Wilkerson. The crowd might have been larger, but the Orioles' interminable TV-rights stall tactics had precluded the Nats from properly advertising the game. Even so, the Nats drew more for this exhibition than the Orioles did for 24 real games last year. Get used to it, Peter.

"We were very pleased to see such a turnout on a very cold day," Manager Frank Robinson said after the Nats lost, 4-3, to the Mets to end the spring 13-15. "We appreciate the support. And the people were still there at the end, cheering."

Anybody who came to this game deserved a black belt in baseball. What a miserable, dark, dank day created for any purpose on earth except attending a game in which veterans hit the hot showers by the fifth inning. Yet, in its way, such a setting was appropriate. After all, everything conspired against attending this game, just as every factor has impeded the return of the sport to the nation's capital since the days when gas cost 38 cents a gallon.

Correct attire included blankets, hoods and fleece-lined gloves. In two weeks, for the same price, you could watch a regular season game on what might even be a balmy spring night. Why, this game even started at 11 a.m. body time since clocks were turned forward for daylight savings time the previous night.

Yet Paul McGlone and his wife, Sharon, from Fairfax, were at the park almost two hours early to take their seats in the first row in section 501 in the outfield upper deck. "I still have a bat from 'Senators Bat Day' in 1969," said McGlone, a lawyer.

"That bat was lost for many years," said his wife. "But he found it this week. What are the odds on that?"

Probably about the same as the odds on the District getting a team back -- until six months ago. Yet, now that the improbable has become reality, serious fans have begun bargain hunting for tickets. MLB has scaled its prices so that lower-deck high-end tickets ($20 and up) are comparable to other parks. So, the lower bowl is no particular bargain. In particular, avoid the $20 "infield terrace box rear" tickets, which are under the overhang that blocks any view of any fly ball.

However, upper-deck tickets between $7 and $15 are quite often as good as any value anywhere in baseball. The concept, after such a long hiatus from the sport, was to entice as many people back to the park as possible at "first-run movie" prices and thus create as broad a fan base as possible.

"I can just remember the old Senators. My father brought me to a few games when I was 7," said Dan Thomas, who brought his son, Cody, with him for a $10-a-seat perch in the front rows of the upper deck not far past first base.

And how old is Cody? "Seven," he says.

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