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Most Comforted By the Surroundings

While fans were exploring the stands, the new Nationals were scouring every part of their new home field for information.

"There isn't a better [dark green] hitting background in the league," said Wilkerson, who hit 32 homers last year.

"Four of us came up here a few weeks ago to see the field. We were pretty worried," said catcher Brian Schneider. "But they've done a remarkable job. The field was great. You couldn't ask for any more. We have to tip our hats."

The Nationals are generous enough not to point out that their home clubhouse may be the most cramped in baseball. "Oh, it's not bad. It's probably twice the size of the visitors' clubhouses in Wrigley Field and Fenway Park," said one Nat.

What he does not say is that the visitors' clubhouses in Wrigley and ancient Fenway Park are far smaller than the home team locker rooms. That's on purpose -- to make the visiting team as miserable as possible. No Yankee has ever put on his jersey in Fenway without hitting another Yankee with his elbow. On Sunday, if every Nat had tried to sit on his stool simultaneously, a musical chairs chain reaction might have been set off, squeezing somebody onto the floor.

As for the weight rooms, don't ask. "It's okay. It's fine. We can get our work done," said Wilkerson. Riiiight.

Man, are these guys glad to have a home. If you'd tried to put half the teams in baseball into the Nationals' sardine quarters, their player rep might have been on the phone to the union to cancel the game. These Nats aren't picky. The idea of 25,453 coming to see them play a meaningless game on a raw day in a gale wind is almost more than they can digest. Yet they know that much more is on the way.

"This was very nice. But Opening Night [April 14] will be electric," Robinson said.

Those at RFK on Sunday, huddled under their lap robes, peeking through scarves, didn't care about electric. They gazed at the huge handsome murals of Vinny Castilla, Schneider and Tony Armas Jr. on what used to be a blank wall beyond the left field fence. They saw a field at least as green and manicured as any the Senators ever played on.

They looked at an old, rudimentary but dignified park, with thousands of seats in the upper deck with chipping paint. They saw the three white Frank Howard home run seats high in the upper deck -- so far away that several Nats refused to believe that home plate could have been in the same spot in Hondo's day. (It was.) We die-hards saw it all, gulped it in, more than half a shivering park of us. We jumped the gun. So what? After such a wait, that's how you claim your own Opening Day.

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