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'It Seemed Just Like a World Series'

Nats' Day Highlighted By Meeting President, Playing in New Home

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page D13

Two runs crossed the plate for the home team, a scoreless tie broken, the game not even four innings old, and the stands above the Washington Nationals' dugout began to vibrate, then shake, then absolutely convulse. For all the Nationals knew, RFK Stadium was about to come apart at the seams, but it was neither frightening nor annoying. It was beautiful.

"Words can't describe it," Nationals center fielder Ryan Church said. "I've never been in a World Series, but I've seen some on TV. And that atmosphere, that crowd noise -- it seemed just like a World Series."

Chad Cordero and catcher Brian Schneider meet after the Nats' first home win. "To see such a big crowd, a crowd that was on our side . . . it's something we're not used to," said outfielder Brad Wilkerson. (Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)

Just like a World Series, but bigger. The World Series happens every year. This game was 34 years in the making -- the first regular season major league game in Washington since 1971. All the love and affection that had no outlet in this city for more than three decades gushed out upon the lucky 25 players who wore Nationals uniforms last night, when the team won its home opener, 5-3, over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"To see such a big crowd, a crowd that was on our side, a crowd that seemed to be into every pitch -- it's something we're not used to," Nationals left fielder Brad Wilkerson said. "To finally get to Washington and play our first regular season game in front of this crowd, with the president here and everything -- it was amazing."

These players, most of them anyway, had never seen or heard anything like this. In Montreal, where this franchise existed as the Expos before this season, typical crowds numbered in the four digits, the sadness of the situation inevitably creeping into the players' psyches and limbs.

Last night, though, a crowd of 45,596 was going crazy on every pitch. And when Vinny Castilla's triple brought home the Nationals' first two runs, giving the home team a 2-0 lead, the stadium's vibrations were felt in the bones.

"All that cheering -- for just two runs," Nationals closer Chad Cordero said. "There's no words to describe it."

Out in the Nationals' bullpen, noted wild man Joey Eischen felt the vibrations, too, and tried to contain himself -- always a dicey proposition, but a nearly impossible one under these circumstances.

"You feel the vibrations and the pounding," he said, "and you're ready to rock. I was champing at the bit to get out there."

The Nationals spent the day meeting their fans and ended the night by thrilling them. They were ordered to assemble at 10:30 a.m. at the team hotel for a sponsors' luncheon, then went straight to the stadium to get ready for batting practice.

"It was a very tough day for us," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "We had to get up early. We were up since 10 o'clock for a 7 o'clock game. No complaints -- it was a memorable day. I'm looking forward to Saturday -- I hope it's just like this, because this was great."

The players were stretching on the grass in front of their dugout in the late afternoon sun when they began to remark on the bigness of it all.

"We couldn't believe Opening Day in Washington was finally here," catcher Brian Schneider said. "There was a tingling all through my body."

Nobody of much importance used to come see this team when they were the Montreal Expos -- for that matter, nor did anyone else. And now, in the pregame madness, these players were surrounded by dignitaries and Washington bigwigs -- John McCain, Tim Russert, President Bush. There were Secret Service men prowling their clubhouse, and there were television cameras and microphones everywhere. And there were fans, throngs of them, shoehorned into the stands, cheering players they had never laid eyes on in person until this night.

President Bush came through the Nationals' clubhouse before the game, shaking hands, posing for pictures, wishing the players well. "It was jaw-dropping," Church said.

When Bush stepped onto the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, Schneider told himself one thing as he settled into the catcher's crouch: "Just catch it." The pitch was high and inside -- the president appearing determined not to look like a sore-armed hack and bounce it up there. But Schneider sidled up to him on the walk back to the dugout and told him it was a strike -- just another presidential Yes Man.

"And I said, 'Thanks for everything,' " Schneider said. "The best part was just getting a chance to meet him."

But once the pomp and circumstance was stripped away, and the politicians and media had left the field, a group of professionals performed the job they were paid to do. As tired as they were, as special as the night was, they played a remarkably solid game of baseball, bats, arms and gloves making sweet baseball music.

"It was a very special night, but we did a good job of staying focused," Wilkerson said. "We got a lead for Livan, and we held it."

And after the game, the Nationals were too pumped up to be tired, too tired to go home and sleep. An amazing day had begun for the Nationals more than 12 hours earlier, and when Church was asked how many people he estimated he had met -- from the sponsors' luncheon to the pregame madness to the presidential visit -- he paused for a moment before answering.

"I'd say," he started, "about 45,000."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company