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A Dose of Reality Brings Nats to Earth

"Terrmel was patient and took good swings. But he hit just under the 3-1 pitch and just on top of the 3-2 pitch," Robinson said. "He had three RBI. You can't always do it.

"But if you don't get those key hits, and, as a team, we didn't do it today, then you lose."

For many years some joked that much-spurned Washington would not truly have a big-league team until the second game was played. But that disclaimer doesn't seem necessary now. Monday afternoon was vivid enough to convince any skeptic with a cloudless sky, snapping flags and the kind of pleasant 59-degree temperature that early April too often refuses to provide.

If anything, the eager-to-please Nationals may have been wound a bit too tight by this perfect day, the big crowd and the mob of media that suddenly wants their thoughts on the reincarnation of Washington baseball. Giddy might not be too strong a term. "This is so exciting I've got goose bumps," said General Manager Jim Bowden, standing by the batting cage.

Just 45 minutes before game time, reliever Joey Eischen went around the Nats clubhouse yelling "spread the love," dishing out bear hugs and back slaps. As Robinson and plenty of players joined in, Eischen admired his work. "Other teams don't do this," he grinned. Well, the Yankees probably don't feel the need. For one day it might've been a bit over the top. But for a long season, too much silly enthusiasm never hurt a big league team, though many a club has been undone by the lack of it.

This camaraderie among the new Nationals, who resemble a modern equivalent of the old, low-budget, disrespected Nats, struck a cord with the man who threw out the first ball for this Opener -- Del Unser. Who else could link all the day's threads and traditions? Unser played for the Senators from '68 to '71 as well as the Expos and the Phils, for whom he still works.

"I'm glad they kept the nickname Nats," said Unser. "We used to call ourselves the Nasty Nats. After we won, Frank Howard would get up in the bus and lead us in these corny team cheers. We'd end up yelling, 'Nats, Nats, go, Nasty Nats.' "

As he demonstrated the goofy old chant, Unser's 60-year-old voice accidentally rose a bit too loudly. He looked around, a little embarrassed, but proud, too, that sometimes the spirit still moves.

"I don't know how long it's been since I did that," he said, sheepishly.

Probably about 34 years.

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