Finally, a Foundation Built for Winning

The Washington Nationals open their new stadium in Southeast D.C. with Sunday's regular season opener against the Atlanta Braves.
By Thomas Boswell
Monday, March 31, 2008

There are no clocks in baseball, it's said. But that's wrong. The clock started again for baseball in Washington last night.

For the past three seasons, the Nationals have been biding time, laying groundwork, in the disregarded backwater of decrepit RFK Stadium. Baseball was back in Washington. But it was not until Opening Night -- in a vibrant, intimate new ballpark already basking in praise -- that Washington was truly back in baseball.

National TV cameras captured the illuminated dome of the U.S. Capitol beyond the outfield, as well as the Washington Monument. President Bush threw out the first ball. For one night, his "W" was a curly one. And with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of a 2-2 game against Atlanta, the face of the franchise, Ryan Zimmerman hit a ludicrously perfect storybook walk-off home run with a scorching line drive that cleared the center field fence by a couple of feet. All in all, everything was exactly as it should always have been between Washington and baseball -- yet wasn't for so agonizingly long.

Long before the jet flyover, the color guard, the operatic national anthem or the head-high throw from the president to Manager Manny Acta, the stands had been filled, the concourses jammed and every corner of the 41,888-seat ballpark under review by the sellout crowd. No new home inspection was ever more meticulous or appreciated.

For the first time since the 1920s and '30s, so long ago that archival columns by the late Shirley Povich might be the only accounts, Washington finds itself with a franchise that has a fighting chance at a future. Thanks to a District-paid ballpark that already has exceeded most expectations, the Nats have the financial foundation necessary to be competitive. If a winning team is built -- far from a certainty -- the Nationals boast a facility that can please fans, gush cash and create credibility.

So, a genuine adventure began here on a chilly Sunday night, probably a splendid one that will last for decades. No one knows, or can even vaguely guess, how its chapters will unfold. No more than anyone would have imagined in 1911, when Griffith Stadium opened, that the Nationals, as they were then known, would play there on Florida Avenue for exactly 50 seasons and that, by 1925, Washington would play in back-to-back World Series.

"Everybody has done a wonderful job on this ballpark. We've tried hard to help the city get the best possible ballpark," said owner Ted Lerner, 82, once a teenage usher at Griffith Stadium. Standing behind the batting cage before the game, the billionaire was so low-key some national broadcasters didn't recognize him. As Lerner looked around the park, to which his family added nearly $50 million in upgrades, he said, "I think expectations have actually been surpassed."

Perhaps the foremost historian of Washington's endless travails and disappointments with baseball was in attendance: Commissioner Bud Selig, ironically enough. "This is a saga that seemed to go on forever, particularly to the people here in Washington," said Selig, who was in the room in '71 when former commissioner Bowie Kuhn was arguing with owners, in vain, to keep the expansion Senators from becoming the Texas Rangers. "All the emotion, everything that went into it, I wish this night had happened sooner. . . . There were parts of the journey that were painful. But that's the past.

"We're back where we belong. And we're back in a baseball cathedral."

Minutes later, realizing his praise might seem disingenuous since he is paid, in part, to praise every stadium ever built, Selig added: "This is a fabulous stadium. I only use the word 'cathedral' when I really mean it."

So, if the two parks going up in New York, or the new one in Minneapolis, aren't called "cathedrals," it may be a tip-off.

"This ownership group was lucky. They had 20 other new parks to study," said Selig. "There are some days when it's not so much fun to be commissioner. Then there are night like this. I'm proud I played a rather crucial role."

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