Baseball arrived in Washington at precisely 8:14 last night at RFK Stadium when Vinny Castilla sliced a triple into the right field corner in the fourth inning of a scoreless game. Two swift Nationals, Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen, raced around the bases to score the first runs in a major league game in this town in 34 years. As Castilla slid into third, the crowd behind the home dugout jumped up and down in unison, just as it had risen as one at the end of the first half-inning in a spontaneous ovation for two strikeouts by starter Livan Hernandez.
However, it wasn't just the box seats that bounced. The entire upper deck, including the press box, began the same unmistakable swaying up and down that marked so many touchdowns in the Redskins' glory days. Then you could see the whole upper deck sway. The Washington crowd hasn't quite got the knack of it yet, not after one game. But the fans are learning fast. All that was required was one Washington run after 33 vacant seasons and the place rocked on its old hinges.
"Holy [expletive]," said team president Tony Tavares, who watched the game in the presidential box with President Bush and Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig.
"It does scare you when you first feel it," said Tony Siegle, the Nationals' assistant general manager. "Does that happen often?"
If the Nationals keep winning games like this 5-3 victory over Arizona, with Hernandez allowing only one scratch infield single over the first eight innings, then this old park will shake frequently. And if the Nats stay in first place in the National League East for a while, it'll shimmy a lot more.
"The crowd was jumping up and down like a big old wave, like they were just having a party," said 22-year-old closer Chad Cordero, who got the save for the Nationals. Then, adding the proper generational punctuation, he echoed roughly a dozen Nats in pronouncing the crowd, the night and, basically, the whole known universe as they now perceive it, as "awesome."
"Amazing, more than I expected," said left fielder Brad Wilkerson. "Every pitch was a boo or a cheer."
"These fans have their heads in the game," said pitcher John Patterson. "Gotta love that, seeing real baseball fans up there."
A packed house arrived expecting ceremony and nostalgia, a presidential first pitch and the sweet sight of ex-Senators, from Frank Howard, Mickey Vernon and Chuck Hinton to Roy Sievers and Eddie Brinkman, standing at their old positions to hand the new Nationals their gloves to start the top of the first inning. They got all that, but it took a distant second billing.
Instead, a beauty of a baseball game broke out. The hitting hero was Castilla, who was obviously miffed that a humongous 40-by-20 foot portrait of him, which had adorned the left field wall 11 days ago during an exhibition game, had been replaced by an equally large, but presumably more profitable Toyota sign.
Castilla finished with a double, triple, two-run homer and four RBI. "Oh, what a feeling" indeed.
"That's the way to get back at 'em," laughed catcher Brian Schneider.
The remaining two Nats' portraits, extremely handsome and vastly superior to ads, belong to Schneider and pitcher Tony Armas Jr. If Cialis and Preparation H banners replace them, we can presumably expect a grand slam and a no-hitter.
If anyone doubted the sophistication of Washington fans, they got the answer in the bottom of the eighth, when Castilla batted needing only a single to hit for the cycle. "What impressed me most wasn't that the crowd cheered for Vinny's home run, but that they all stood up the next time at-bat [when he was going for the cycle]," Schneider said.
The first pitch from Lance Cormier drilled Castilla in the back. In an instant, the stadium exploded in boos. As Castilla trotted off the field after being erased by a double play, the fans howled some more. And, just to underline that they had good memories and knew the game's codes, the crowd booed Cormier all the way to the dugout between innings. If Cormier should pitch tomorrow or Sunday here, he might want to wear earplugs.
"Y'all's fans never left. Only the team left. They've been waiting. . . . Had to watch soccer," said reliever Joey Eischen.
As for the evening's pomp, it mostly fizzled. Not that it matters. After all, it's not fireworks, flyovers, anthem singers or even presidents that we've missed so much since 1971. A cheerful crowd on a gorgeous spring night had to be satisfied with a perfect example of what it's wanted for so long -- a victory by a home team that is already very close to being the second-best Washington team since World War II. Yes, seriously. Except for the 86-win Nats in '69, no Senators team since '45 bettered a .506 record. Granted, that's a fairly low hurdle to leap. But this team has showed a lot of April spring in its legs.
The only blotch on the evening, but a large one, was the interminable security for President Bush's visit. Half the crowd was trapped outside the stadium in agonizingly long metal-detector lines for most of the 50-minutes of celebrity introductions, outfield-filling American flags and all the usual accoutrements of an Opening Night or postseason game.
Those who were inside were a crowd of strangers who barely knew how to take their cues, since the RFK replay scoreboard is so distant and tiny, and the park's PA system so scratchy that the introductions might as well have been for the Federal Open Market Committee.
Perhaps the person most bothered by this was the president, who, as a baseball fan, ranks far beyond avid.
"He's so up on the game that it's astounding," said Tavares, who was peppered with questions all night on various pitching rotations and opinions of Nationals rivals. The president (ssshhhh) doesn't like the Mets' chances, has the Phillies picked third and thinks the Marlins are the class of the division.
At one point, the subject of the best catchers in the National League came up. "I blanked on who catches for the Phillies," Tavares said. "I asked the commissioner. He didn't know. The president said, '[Mike] Lieberthal' "
If Tavares was shocked, Eischen was stunned by his presidential moment. Long before the game, Eischen mentioned he'd played in the Rangers' organization when Bush was a managing general partner. "I was a 19-year-old punk kid in A ball," Eischen said. "He didn't want to meet me. I wasn't even on the big club's roster."
By midseason, Eischen was traded as an insignificant minor league throw-in as part of a deal for Oil Can Boyd.
Afterward, Eischen said: "The president came in before the game and shook hands with everybody. I said my name. Later we had pictures taken. He looked at me and said, 'Eischen, right?' I said, 'Yes, sir.' He said, 'Oil Can Boyd. Bad trade.' "
In his passion for the game, the president clearly has tons of company in this town. By the ninth inning, when a three-run homer by Chad Tracy broke up Hernandez's bid for a shutout, this first game had all the drama any fan could want. On came Cordero, with the low-brimmed hat and the "challenge everybody" attitude.
Finally, the Diamondbacks' 6-foot-7 slugger Tony Clark strode to the plate as a pinch hitter representing the tying run. Already this season, Cordero has shown that he comes straight after the heart of every lineup. If a gopher ball is in his future, he accepts the risk. Clark lashed at a fastball and launched it high toward center field.
For a split second the crowd of 45,596 caught its breath. But, even without a single day of practice at judging fly balls in 34 years, they knew a harmless can of corn when they saw one. As the ball settled in the glove of Ryan Church, baseball was truly and beautifully back in Washington. With home runs, shaking grandstands, fastballs in the back and a president who knows lineups better than the commissioner, this Opening Night felt like the beginning of a new and perhaps far, far better era.