Baseball arrived in Washington at precisely 8:14 last night at RFK Stadium when Vinny Castilla sliced a triple into the right field corner in the fourth inning of a scoreless game. Two swift Nationals, Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen, raced around the bases to score the first runs in a major league game in this town in 34 years. As Castilla slid into third, the crowd behind the home dugout jumped up and down in unison, just as it had risen as one at the end of the first half-inning in a spontaneous ovation for two strikeouts by starter Livan Hernandez.
However, it wasn't just the box seats that bounced. The entire upper deck, including the press box, began the same unmistakable swaying up and down that marked so many touchdowns in the Redskins' glory days. Then you could see the whole upper deck sway. The Washington crowd hasn't quite got the knack of it yet, not after one game. But the fans are learning fast. All that was required was one Washington run after 33 vacant seasons and the place rocked on its old hinges.
"Holy [expletive]," said team president Tony Tavares, who watched the game in the presidential box with President Bush and Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig.
"It does scare you when you first feel it," said Tony Siegle, the Nationals' assistant general manager. "Does that happen often?"
If the Nationals keep winning games like this 5-3 victory over Arizona, with Hernandez allowing only one scratch infield single over the first eight innings, then this old park will shake frequently. And if the Nats stay in first place in the National League East for a while, it'll shimmy a lot more.
"The crowd was jumping up and down like a big old wave, like they were just having a party," said 22-year-old closer Chad Cordero, who got the save for the Nationals. Then, adding the proper generational punctuation, he echoed roughly a dozen Nats in pronouncing the crowd, the night and, basically, the whole known universe as they now perceive it, as "awesome."
"Amazing, more than I expected," said left fielder Brad Wilkerson. "Every pitch was a boo or a cheer."
"These fans have their heads in the game," said pitcher John Patterson. "Gotta love that, seeing real baseball fans up there."
A packed house arrived expecting ceremony and nostalgia, a presidential first pitch and the sweet sight of ex-Senators, from Frank Howard, Mickey Vernon and Chuck Hinton to Roy Sievers and Eddie Brinkman, standing at their old positions to hand the new Nationals their gloves to start the top of the first inning. They got all that, but it took a distant second billing.
Instead, a beauty of a baseball game broke out. The hitting hero was Castilla, who was obviously miffed that a humongous 40-by-20 foot portrait of him, which had adorned the left field wall 11 days ago during an exhibition game, had been replaced by an equally large, but presumably more profitable Toyota sign.
Castilla finished with a double, triple, two-run homer and four RBI. "Oh, what a feeling" indeed.
"That's the way to get back at 'em," laughed catcher Brian Schneider.
The remaining two Nats' portraits, extremely handsome and vastly superior to ads, belong to Schneider and pitcher Tony Armas Jr. If Cialis and Preparation H banners replace them, we can presumably expect a grand slam and a no-hitter.
If anyone doubted the sophistication of Washington fans, they got the answer in the bottom of the eighth, when Castilla batted needing only a single to hit for the cycle. "What impressed me most wasn't that the crowd cheered for Vinny's home run, but that they all stood up the next time at-bat [when he was going for the cycle]," Schneider said.