PHILADELPHIA, April 4 -- The guy didn't even know what a helpful service he was providing, snagging Terrmel Sledge's home run ball out of the air and -- fueled, no doubt, by a mixture of Opening Day euphoria and liquid courage -- chucking it back on the field. By making such a grand gesture of goodwill, the unknown fan spared an intern a few innings' worth of work canvassing section 104, looking for the ball that Cooperstown wanted.
"The Hall of Fame?" Sledge said when Washington Nationals team president Tony Tavares informed him where the ball would be residing permanently. "My eyes lit up," he said later. "I can't put it into words. It's an amazing feeling, having a part of you in the Hall of Fame."
For days, as the build-up to Monday's Opening Day grew, Nationals players joked about whose shoulder history would tap upon. Unless the Nationals were really, really awful or Philadelphia Phillies starter Jon Lieber was really, really good, somebody was going to stroke the first hit in Nationals history. And unless Citizens Bank Park suddenly stopped being a launching pad, someone was going to hit the franchise's first homer.
But when the game finally began -- the first regular season game for a Washington baseball franchise in nearly 34 years -- everybody quickly forgot about history. Until it came calling.
Brad Wilkerson, the Nationals' reluctant leadoff man, had the first crack at notching the franchise's first hit, stepping into the batter's box at 3:07 p.m. and taking a strike down the middle from Lieber.
"The first at-bat every year, you're a little nervous," Wilkerson said later. "But I really was this time. I was just glad to get it out of the way."
Sledge was sitting on the Nationals' bench when Wilkerson, on Lieber's fifth pitch, reached out and flared a single into shallow right, Sledge all of a sudden shot up. "I said, 'Hey, that's the first hit for the Washington Nationals,' " he said later. "But it didn't cross my mind until then."
"It's an honor," Wilkerson said of the franchise's first hit. "It's something I'll think about when I'm all done."
An inning later, Nick Johnson scored the franchise's first run in the most mundane of ways, crossing the plate on Sledge's groundout to second base -- which, of course, became the franchise's first RBI.
Finally, in the sixth, Sledge came to the plate again to face Lieber. Remembering an inside slider Lieber had thrown him on the first pitch earlier in the game, Sledge guessed Lieber would start him with the same pitch again. And he guessed correctly, crushing the pitch over the wall in right for a two-run homer.
Sledge had not even finished his circuit around the bases when the ball came hurtling out of the stands, rolling nearly all the way to the infield dirt. The ball was scooped up and relayed into the Nationals' dugout, where it was tucked away safely for its eventual journey to Cooperstown.
According to Hall of Fame vice president Jeff Idelson, the Hall also asked for the ball used for the first pitch of the game -- the one Wilkerson took for strike one -- and Wilkerson's game jersey. Room is also being cleared for a handful of items the Hall has requested from the Nationals' April 14 home opener.
And as for the guy in section 104, he can visit Cooperstown someday, locate the ball in question and remember -- if he can -- the way it felt in his hand for those few seconds.