The first pitch from Lance Cormier drilled Castilla in the back. In an instant, the stadium exploded in boos. As Castilla trotted off the field after being erased by a double play, the fans howled some more. And, just to underline that they had good memories and knew the game's codes, the crowd booed Cormier all the way to the dugout between innings. If Cormier should pitch tomorrow or Sunday here, he might want to wear earplugs.
"Y'all's fans never left. Only the team left. They've been waiting. . . . Had to watch soccer," said reliever Joey Eischen.
As for the evening's pomp, it mostly fizzled. Not that it matters. After all, it's not fireworks, flyovers, anthem singers or even presidents that we've missed so much since 1971. A cheerful crowd on a gorgeous spring night had to be satisfied with a perfect example of what it's wanted for so long -- a victory by a home team that is already very close to being the second-best Washington team since World War II. Yes, seriously. Except for the 86-win Nats in '69, no Senators team since '45 bettered a .506 record. Granted, that's a fairly low hurdle to leap. But this team has showed a lot of April spring in its legs.
The only blotch on the evening, but a large one, was the interminable security for President Bush's visit. Half the crowd was trapped outside the stadium in agonizingly long metal-detector lines for most of the 50-minutes of celebrity introductions, outfield-filling American flags and all the usual accoutrements of an Opening Night or postseason game.
Those who were inside were a crowd of strangers who barely knew how to take their cues, since the RFK replay scoreboard is so distant and tiny, and the park's PA system so scratchy that the introductions might as well have been for the Federal Open Market Committee.
Perhaps the person most bothered by this was the president, who, as a baseball fan, ranks far beyond avid.
"He's so up on the game that it's astounding," said Tavares, who was peppered with questions all night on various pitching rotations and opinions of Nationals rivals. The president (ssshhhh) doesn't like the Mets' chances, has the Phillies picked third and thinks the Marlins are the class of the division.
At one point, the subject of the best catchers in the National League came up. "I blanked on who catches for the Phillies," Tavares said. "I asked the commissioner. He didn't know. The president said, '[Mike] Lieberthal' "
If Tavares was shocked, Eischen was stunned by his presidential moment. Long before the game, Eischen mentioned he'd played in the Rangers' organization when Bush was a managing general partner. "I was a 19-year-old punk kid in A ball," Eischen said. "He didn't want to meet me. I wasn't even on the big club's roster."
By midseason, Eischen was traded as an insignificant minor league throw-in as part of a deal for Oil Can Boyd.
Afterward, Eischen said: "The president came in before the game and shook hands with everybody. I said my name. Later we had pictures taken. He looked at me and said, 'Eischen, right?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' He said, 'Oil Can Boyd. Bad trade.' "
In his passion for the game, the president clearly has tons of company in this town. By the ninth inning, when a three-run homer by Chad Tracy broke up Hernandez's bid for a shutout, this first game had all the drama any fan could want. On came Cordero, with the low-brimmed hat and the "challenge everybody" attitude.
Finally, the Diamondbacks' 6-foot-7 slugger Tony Clark strode to the plate as a pinch hitter representing the tying run. Already this season, Cordero has shown that he comes straight after the heart of every lineup. If a gopher ball is in his future, he accepts the risk. Clark lashed at a fastball and launched it high toward center field.
For a split second the crowd of 45,596 caught its breath. But, even without a single day of practice at judging fly balls in 34 years, they knew a harmless can of corn when they saw one. As the ball settled in the glove of Ryan Church, baseball was truly and beautifully back in Washington. With home runs, shaking grandstands, fastballs in the back and a president who knows lineups better than the commissioner, this Opening Night felt like the beginning of a new and perhaps far, far better era.