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Washington Cheers As Long-Sought Team Makes Winning Debut

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page A01

Thirty-four long years of waiting for baseball in Washington ended last night at twilight, when nine young men in white Nationals uniforms jogged from the home team's dugout to the field at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and took their gloves from nine much older men from a bygone era.

The crowd cheered as the old Senators legends, including Frank Howard in left field, gave way to a new team. As Howard departed and Brad Wilkerson took his place, the deep bass beat of rapper T.I.'s "Bring 'Em Out" boomed from the loudspeakers. This was a new era.

President Bush throws out the first pitch before the Nationals begin their home opener at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Security was tight for the game. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

By game's end, the Nationals had won again, this time 5-3, holding off a Diamondbacks rally in the ninth inning. When the ball landed in the glove of Ryan Church for the final out, a cannon boomed, fans jumped up and down to Kool & the Gang's "Celebration" and a day-long homecoming party was capped in style.

"I never thought I'd see this again," said George Stewart, 83, a retired plasterer who grew up watching Senators games at Griffith Stadium. "There have been so many disappointments over the years, I just never thought we'd get a team."

At 7:06 p.m., Nationals pitcher Livan Hernandez fired the first pitch, a fastball, past Arizona leadoff hitter Craig Counsell. Strike one! And Nationals catcher Brian Schneider threw the ball to the dugout, headed for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

It was the culmination of a long, difficult journey for a team to return to Washington. The city worked for years to get Major League Baseball to award it a team, then beat out rival Northern Virginia for the vagabond Montreal Expos in September. But even then, the enthusiasm that met Mayor Anthony A. Williams's announcement was tempered by the three-month fight among District leaders over whether to build the Nationals a stadium.

But difficulties, past and present, faded as President Bush stepped onto the field and threw out the ceremonial first pitch. The ball, handed to him by former Washington Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda, was the one Grzenda used in the last game in 1971.

On the field and in the stands, the sense of pride, relief and accomplishment was palpable. Enjoying cloudless skies and mild weather, fans lined up three hours before the game and endured long waits to enter a stadium through metal detectors to ensure tight security for the president. They snapped up souvenirs in the cramped corridors under the renovated stadium. They took pictures and lined the front row seeking autographs.

John Malone, 44, of Herndon, whose father used to get him excused from school to go to Senators games at RFK, was there with his son Brady, 9.

"It's just a great feeling to come back to RFK and have the smell, the sights, the sounds that I remember from 30 years ago," Malone said. "It still looks familiar. This is a great feeling, just tremendous."

Brady, peering from under a low-slung red Nationals cap, added that he was switching his allegiance from the Baltimore Orioles to the Nationals. "They're close to my home," Brady said with a smile.

But the team was so new that people were still learning who the players were. Sure, the Nationals opened with a surprising 5-4 record on the road before coming home, but this was the first chance for the fans to see their new heroes up close.

John Flaherty, 14, of Haymarket was wearing a blue Brad Wilkerson jersey he had received as an early birthday present. But he admitted he didn't know much about the team's leadoff hitter.

"This is a brand-new team," he said. "I haven't seen them a lot." The feeling was mutual. Nationals center fielder Ryan Church stood on the first base line before the game looking at the crowd while conducting an interview with ABC's "Nightline."

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