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"I don't know anything about Washington except they haven't had a team in 34 years. That's a long time," Church said. "This whole thing is going to be special this year. We're coming out and playing our butts off to represent the city. This is something everybody will cherish for the rest of their lives."

There seemed little doubt of that for the mayor, who took a political beating when pushing his stadium financing bill through a divided D.C. Council last fall. A motorcade bearing Williams arrived at RFK, lights flashing, just after 5 p.m. Minus his signature bow tie, the mayor wore an open-neck shirt, khaki pants and a special blue home-opener baseball cap.


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)


"It's a great day for the city," he said. "With baseball, we went through a hell of a lot of controversy. . . . But now we have something very concrete and tangible. When you can actually see the benefit for the community, it's a good feeling."

Introduced before the game, Williams scored a standing ovation and doffed his hat for more than 30 seconds as the fans applauded. Then he hugged his sometime nemesis Linda W. Cropp, chairman of the D.C. Council, who drew hearty boos moments later.

At a luncheon yesterday at the Washington Convention Center, where the team was feted before more than 1,000 members of the business community, emcee Tim Russert drew laughs when he said the political fighting "gave us all heartburn." Then he introduced Cropp.

"After the heartburn, I did have the remedy," Cropp told the crowd defiantly. "Now we have a first-place team for a first-place city."

Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig spent the first five innings sitting with Bush in the president's box between home plate and the Nationals dugout along the third base line. "This has been extraordinary," Selig said. "It's been a long wait. There was a lot of work. And there was a lot of tension. But this is a great day for our sport."

In an interview at the Oval Office yesterday morning with three baseball reporters, Bush spoke enthusiastically of baseball's return to Washington and said he hoped it would encourage more African American children to play the game.

"I'm hoping, of course, that the next Willie Mays shows up in a baseball uniform and not in a basketball uniform," Bush said, invoking the name of his favorite player as a child. "But, no, there's work to be done in the inner city. Washington's got a chance, of course, to be a leader in attracting a different fan base."

Bush left at 8:35, after the fifth inning, with the Nationals leading 3-0.

Standing on the field with the mayor and council members before the game, Mamie Johnson and Audrey Fields were representatives of baseball past. Both were involved with the Negro Leagues. Johnson, 69, once pitched for the old Indianapolis Clowns. She wore a reproduction Clowns jersey on the field.

Audrey Fields's husband, Wilmer, played 25 years in the Negro Leagues, including with the Homestead Grays. She said that when the Senators were out of town, the Grays played at Griffith Stadium. Her husband died in June, and she said, wiping her eyes: "I wish he was here. He would have loved it."

Johnson looked out at the deep green grass and the rapidly filling stadium and said: "It's a beautiful thing. It's a gorgeous day."

A half-hour before the opening pitch, thousands were still outside the stadium. Fans were backed up waiting to pass through the metal detectors, and the parking lots in front of the main entrance were filled with people who were left to listen to the public address announcer introduce the Nationals.


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