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It's Opening Day, but Nationals and Their Fans Are Trying to Work Through Some Difficult Times

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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Four years into the relationship, and just a year since moving into the sparkling new house on South Capitol Street, the marriage of the Washington Nationals and their fan base yesterday showed the strains of domestic ennui. On baseball's equivalent of a wedding anniversary -- Opening Day -- both sides got all dolled up and perfumed. But both quietly wondered: Where was that old spark, and can they ever get it back?

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Bless their hearts for trying. On a cloudy, cool afternoon at Nationals Park, the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom beyond the left field stands. The Racing Presidents greeted fans as they strolled down Half Street and into the stadium bowl. The Nationals, in their crisp home whites, jogged in from center field for the pregame introductions and lined up along the first base line.

But the day had so much working against it. The Nationals, after a 102-loss fiasco in 2008, returned to town having lost all six games of a season-opening road trip. The economic recession tamped down ticket demand. And in the opposite dugout were the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals' nearest geographic rival in the National League.

"Sure, it can't help but make you feel a little more down about things," said Jim Kurtzke, a Nationals season ticket holder from Ashburn, before the game. "You want to get a sense the franchise is progressing, and I'm not sure I get that sense."

The Nationals' 9-8 loss to the Phillies yesterday, constructed upon a foundation of crumbling defense and leaky relief pitching, did little to improve the mood of either the team or its fans. The Nationals are 0-7, the only winless team in baseball. The season is barely a week old, and hope is sinking fast.

"Starting off like that is just tough on the team," Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire said, "because I think everybody had really high expectations . . . to make something of the season -- which we still can. It's seven games. It's not like it's 40 games. But it's still frustrating."

This being Washington, and this being Opening Day, at least the proceedings would be lifted by the presence of President Obama, upholding the longstanding tradition of presidential first pitches in the nation's capital.

Oh, wait. Never mind. Turns out, Obama politely declined the Nationals' invitation, and so the ceremonial first pitches instead were thrown by a five-person, uniformed contingent representing the branches of the U.S. armed services. Even the slow fly-over of a fleet of military helicopters lacked the pizazz and ear-splitting noise of fighter jets.

Just before the game's real first pitch, a moment of silence was observed for Harry Kalas, the legendary Phillies broadcaster of 38 years who collapsed and died in the press box a few hours before the game. His voice, distinctive and evocative, represented the deep ties of tradition between the Phillies and their fans -- a tradition the Nationals are trying to reestablish in Washington, where baseball disappeared in 1972 and finally returned in 2005.

As on a wedding anniversary, Opening Day is a chance to step back and take stock of the relationship. In their worst moments, both the Nationals and their fans could demand of the other: Have you taken me for granted?

Tickets were still available for the game minutes before first pitch -- an unheard-of situation in many other baseball cities -- and while the game eventually sold out, with a stadium-record crowd of 40,386, team officials have largely avoided questions about attendance, except to acknowledge it will be down in Year 2 of the new stadium.

"Until we get the product to where we want it to be, we're not going to be selling out every day," Nationals President Stan Kasten said.


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