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Finally, a Foundation Built for Winning

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."

Sorry, just wait a minute until I compose myself. Bud played a crucial role, all right. For 20 years baseball used Washington in its carrot-and-stick games with other cities when it wanted to get new ballparks built. The unwritten rule was: Use Washington, protect Baltimore. After the District finally made the ultimate Offer-You-Can't-Refuse and promised baseball a $611 million, publicly funded ballpark, Selig had the gumption to stand up to Peter Angelos and . . . well . . . give the Orioles owner a guaranteed ($375 million) purchase price for the Orioles and hand over 90 percent of the Nationals' cable TV rights to MASN.

That one's for you, Shirley.

However, it's also true that once then-mayor Anthony A. Williams got on board baseball's backroom plan for circumventing the Baltimore Issue, Selig was delighted to facilitate it. A $611 million stadium and a $450 million purchase price by the Lerners, all going straight to baseball: What's not to like?

For decades, any problem that could derail Washington's best baseball efforts always succeeded in causing maximum damage. Could that be changing? For example, for 22 months, grave concerns were voiced about this night. The park wouldn't be finished on a tight design-as-you-build schedule; the District might face tens of millions in penalties to MLB. The budget would be blown, leaving a shabby facility in its wake. Metro service would be insufficient or agonizingly slow. Parking would set records for misery. A free shuttle bus from the RFK parking lots would be a bad joke, not a 10-minute solution.

Instead, this game's only significant delays were associated with presidential security that caused extra waits of as much as an hour-and-a-half. Does that mean the next 80 games, when no metal detectors will be needed, might actually run fairly smoothly? Don't say it yet, not by a long shot. Wait for a full-house game on a weeknight. Then let out your breath.

"Maybe the best news of the two nights is that the RFK Express seems to be working really well," said team president Stan Kasten of one of Ted Lerner's best ideas. "It took my wife three minutes from the time she parked her car until the wheels of the bus were moving and the trip over here took 10 minutes. That's the standard we want."

If Washington is truly to break with its often-bleak baseball past, one more thing is necessary, crucial to the building of a far larger fan base, essential to making Nationals Park a central part of the Capital Waterfront's grand designs.

"We have to win," said the elder Lerner emphatically. "How long do we have?"

"The park's open. Honeymoon's about over," I said. "So, you've probably got until the sixth or seventh inning tonight."

Lerner laughed. If young pitchers like Ross Detwiler, Josh Smoker, Jack McGeary and Collin Balester don't pan out, it will be tough in a year or two even to break a grin. But, for the moment, the Nationals look somewhat improved this spring. And heroics like Zimmerman's can give a team a gradually accumulating sense of self-confidence.

"I've never hit the ball out of the infield against that guy [Peter Moylan]," said Zimmerman, who is on an enormous photo that covers almost the entire back of the scoreboard, showing him jumping into the arms of his mates after a walk-off homer in '06. "I guessed right . . . I was talkin' to that ball a little on the way to first base. You can't really write it better than that."

Is the next Goose Goslin, Sam Rice or Bucky Harris already in the current crew, disguised in a jersey that says Zimmerman, Milledge or Acta? Does a pitcher with a smidgen of Big Train in him already toil for the Class A Potomac Nationals? The lower concourse of this park is adorned with all their portraits and deeds.

But honor is also given, in blown-up baseball-card montages, to all the diligent mediocrities of the '50s and '60s that kept baseball alive here, if barely breathing. Surely, the fate of Nationals Park can't be 50 more years of Herb Plews and Dick Hyde.

Time goes fast counted in decades, but, mercifully, passes quite slowly when gauged by summer evenings in a ballpark. Each one can seem like a miniature eternity, a stay against time. With a new and sparkling park, Nats fans will no doubt discover at least one more summer of patience after enduring so many of them. But for baseball in Washington, the clock has finally started again. Expectations should be raised accordingly. Patience, even in this town, won't be infinite. That clock is ticking.

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