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Mike Wise

Passion and Politics Converge on a Long-Awaited Stage

By Mike Wise
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page D10

The coach was unfamiliar, but he was decked out in freshly laundered home whites. He had the red Nationals insignia with the gold trim emblazoned across his barrel chest. He wore the pants and matching spikes.

"Congratulations," someone said to him. Unmoved, the large man stood sentry in the Washington Nationals' clubhouse at RFK Stadium.

"For what?" he asked.

"You know, Opening Day. First game in D.C."

"Oh, I'm not with the team. I'm Secret Service."

There it was, the seminal merging of Washington's two newest institutions, Spandex-tight security and baseball, an old friend who finally found his way home after 34 years.

As Chad Cordero wound and delivered the final pitch, as center fielder Ryan Church cradled the final out in his glove -- as 45,596 stood and shouted in unison after a rousing 5-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks -- the rocky past between the city and the sport dissipated amid the roar and the popping sound of fireworks on a cool spring night.

The grand, old game that broke hearts, dented wallets and left a severe emotional pang on the day it left in 1971 was plainly forgiven. And it was time for the secret service to play dress-up.

Coach Fred (not his real name; his real name is Matt) was protecting Cristian Guzman, Tomo Ohka, T.J. Tucker and President Bush from terrorists and radicals. He could not stop a real evil-doer, Lance Cormier.

Cormier, an Arizona reliever, hit the star of the Nationals' home opener, Vinny Castilla, in the bottom of the eighth inning -- presumably on purpose. Castilla had hurt the Arizona Diamondbacks worse than Wally Backman's references.

Castilla crushed a double, triple and the first home run at RFK Stadium in franchise history. At 37, he only needed a single to hit for the cycle, somewhat of a rarity in baseball considering no player in the history of the San Diego Padres has done it.

But in one of those juvenile, we-can't-be-shown-up moments that occurs every third day in baseball, Cormier came way inside, probably on orders from the dugout. Already, the home crowd had a villain.

The union was complete between "a team that needed a home and a home that needed a team," Tom McCraw said. McCraw, the Nationals' hitting coach, spoke from the same clubhouse where in 1971 he got the last hit at RFK Stadium in his only season with the Senators.

The sense of embrace was felt all around the ballpark. Bud Selig's foster children finally had a real home.

"You just feel like you're very empowered," said Joey Eischen, the Nationals' 34-year-old reliever, of the move from Montreal. "You feel like you got a leg up now, you know?"

Eischen, who met Bush last night, actually once collected a paycheck from him. It was 1990 and he was playing in the minor leagues, in the farm system of the Texas Rangers when Bush was a general managing partner.

"I was just a 19-year-old punk kid in A ball," he said. "He didn't want to meet me. I wasn't even on the big club's roster."

Ottawa, Butte, Harrisburg, Adirondack. You name a minor league outpost, and Eischen has been there. He once got released in Cincinnati by the Nationals' general manager, Jim Bowden.

"I didn't build my career on 100-mph fastballs," he said. "I haven't been in the big leagues for 20 straight years. I've bounced around like a pinball."

His cubicle in the Nationals' clubhouse has pictures of his family, a ballet blue ribbon won by his 5-year-old daughter, the smell of heat balm, baby powder and a new international version Bible that has been to all those cities en route to the major leagues. Eischen's cubicle looks like home.

"I can't put it into words," he said. "It's a tremendous relief."

Opening Day was a tremendous spectacle, an event of great magnitude. Whether the Nationals can get by on nostalgia on Saturday and Sunday, though, who knows? The franchise has been able to slide by on euphoria the past few months. From ticket problems to stadium kinks, every inconvenience has been overlooked. The new kids in town have gotten leeway that they may not get in the middle of a hot, humid summer.

"I don't think you can critique a baseball town or a non-baseball town on Opening Day," Brad Wilkerson said. "Ninety-nine percent of teams are sold out on Opening Day. I think you can critique that in July or August."

Will 45,000 or even 30,000 show then? Will Washington prove to be a better baseball town than it once was? Those are questions better left for another evening.

Yesterday, a franchise officially bloomed again in Washington. It returned on a sunny, cool, spring day that made the people who longed for it most wonder why 33 Opening Days passed without baseball. And Washington may just have a team.

"We just showed everybody what we can do," said Eischen of the first-place Nationals. "We just let the Braves know that we're not going to let them take off like last year. We were 4-15 last year against the Braves.

"We just took a big bite out of the National League East. All the teams that were expected to [spit] on us are now scratching their heads."

What's more, neither the Braves nor the Phillies have the Secret Service on their side.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company