VIERA, Fla. - The line of cars stretched almost as far as the eye could see, which must have seemed like a very good omen to the Washington Nationals on the occasion of their first exhibition game at Space Coast Stadium.
I couldn't decide whether it reminded me more of the final scene of Field of Dreams or weekday traffic on the Capital Beltway, until I heard that telltale whisper:
"If you move out of Montreal - and, hopefully, play a lot of April home games against the New York Mets - they will come."
Don't know about anyone else, but I felt right at home as soon as I saw all the people in the stands with NY on their caps and noticed the cheers for the visiting team were just as loud as the inaugural fan reaction to the newly renamed and relocated Nationals.
Now I know why the Orioles are so worried about a second team in the region. It isn't because it will siphon away Washington baseball fans. They stopped coming several years ago. It's because a second team will almost certainly steal a big chunk of the obnoxious New York tourist trade.
That much was apparent as soon as $119 million free agent Carlos Beltran stepped to the plate in the first inning for his first competitive at-bat in a Mets uniform. He got a solid ovation, then took a called third strike, proving that $17 million per year just doesn't go nearly as far as it used to. (Yeah, like back when the Yankees signed Jason Giambi.)
Of course, they come by their New York influence honestly in South Florida, which is more of a suburb of New York City than New Rochelle. The New York state of mind that prevails at Camden Yards when the Yankees are in town (and presumably in Washington when the Mets show up) is another story altogether.
The Nationals still are feeling their way around, but isn't that what spring training is for? They unveiled a new team theme song before the game - a heavy-metal monstrosity that sounded a little like AC/DC until the first chorus of "We are the Washington Nationals," then just sounded ridiculous.
"I don't know if the AC/DC part is going to work in our stadium," said Nats GM Jim Bowden, who received the song unsolicited from a friend who plays guitar for the music group Blessid Union Of Souls, "but I liked the part where it says, `Baseball's back in the nation's capital.' "
I couldn't make that part out, but my hearing has been going since my Jethro Tull period.
If the song was supposed to fire up all those New York fans, who cut their teeth on "Welcome To The Jungle" by Guns N' Roses at Yankee Stadium, the effect was muted by an ESPN commercial break, during which the public address system tried to maintain the level of excitement by playing the legendary fire-up song "Build Me Up, Buttercup."
It's still playing in my head.
No doubt, they'll iron out the kinks - and get the lawn established at RFK Stadium - in time for the home opener on April 14.
New Mets general manager (and former Expos GM) Omar Minaya attended the game wearing a Montreal Royals throwback cap, a tribute to the man who knocked down the color barrier in baseball.
Jackie Robinson started his brave sojourn into the all-white major leagues as a member of the Triple-A Royals.
"I just have a tremendous amount of respect for Jackie Robinson," said Minaya, who undoubtedly understood his choice of headwear would mean different things to different people.
Minaya jumped to the Mets after guiding the Expos through their difficult vagabond period, during which they played a portion of their home games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in Puerto Rico.
NFL writer Chris Harry of the Orlando Sentinel attended the first exhibition game bearing his program and ticket stub from the final game played by the Washington Senators at RFK Stadium.
Harry is working on an essay about the return of baseball to the District, and hopes to arrange to watch a regular-season game at RFK from the same seat (Section 211, Aisle 2, Seat 11) where he watched that final Senators game on Sept. 30, 1971.
"I loved the Senators," he said. "Then, to see them go ... I've hated baseball ever since. It scarred me."
That explains why he ended up covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers instead of the Devil Rays, though there are plenty of other good reasons to make the same choice.
Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams is scheduled to attend Saturday's exhibition game between the Nationals and Orioles at ramshackle Fort Lauderdale Stadium, which makes you wonder why he would make his first appearance at the home of his hometown team's new geographical rival.
I mean, why would anyone choose to watch the Nationals play in a rundown, 40-year-old stadium?
Sorry, sore subject.