Nationals, fans finally touch base at RFK

Dress rehearsal 11 days before club's home opener ends first spring training

April 04, 2005|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The sky was gray and a biting wind whipped around RFK Stadium as a hometown baseball team took the field in the nation's capital yesterday for the first time since 1971.

The dreary weather was a small price to pay for a city that endured 33 years of waiting - and various perceived slights from Major League Baseball - as it waited for the game's return.

The Washington Nationals' preseason game against the New York Mets was a day for shrugging off temperatures in the 40s and an assortment of other first-game inconveniences for fans and players alike. These included strikingly long concession lines and assorted minor problems with the batter's box and mound.

It didn't even matter that the Nationals lost the game, 4-3. This is a club and a city that knows the weather will warm this summer, a new stadium will be built presumably by 2008, and a new owner will purchase the team, now owned by Major League Baseball.

"This is going to rock," said center fielder Ryan Church, who drove in the team's first runs in its new city with a three-run homer in the second inning. "To have the president coming [for the regular-season home opener] is crazy."

The Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, finished 13-15 in their first spring training in their new incarnation and begin the regular season today in Philadelphia. Their sold-out home opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks is April 14.

Yesterday was a rehearsal - both for the Nationals and the stadium crew.

There were minor glitches - not unexpected for a stadium that hadn't hosted a baseball game involving a Washington team since Sept. 30, 1971. Owner Robert Short moved the team to Texas for the following season.

Nationals manager Frank Robinson said catcher Brian Schneider complained that the batter's box's white outline was too slippery. Robinson said the mound had an unwanted lip, and the bullpen mounds were too sandy and needed more clay.

Fans said the numbers on the center-field scoreboard were too small and that there was nowhere to view the speed of each pitch. There was also grumbling about long waits for food, even though the stadium, which seats 45,250, was only slightly more than half full.

"It took 45 minutes to get chicken and fries," said Sam Burkholder of Alexandria, Va., who brought his two sons, ages 7 and 3. "The stadium looks pretty good, though."

Like Burkholder, most fans seemed willing to forgive a few hassles.

"The grass looks great," said season-ticket holder Jesse Strickland, an information technology manager from Columbia. "From what they had to work with, they did a really good job."

Mayor Anthony Williams, who led a trying battle to land the team and secure stadium funding, tossed out the first pitch. The Nationals jogged onto the field at 12:05 p.m., receiving a standing ovation. They wore white pants with red tops with an intertwined "DC" on the jerseys and caps.

Brad Wilkerson got the game's first hit - a single to right - with nobody out in the second inning. Vinny Castilla singled and Church followed with a homer to right to put the Nationals ahead 3-0.

Church suffered a strained groin muscle in the game, leaving his status in doubt for today. Robinson also said he had not yet decided who will lead off - a task filled yesterday by first baseman Nick Johnson, but which could be assigned to Wilkerson.

New York's Cliff Floyd and David Wright hit back-to-back homers off Nationals starter Tomo Ohka in the fourth. Victor Hall's sacrifice fly off Ohka in the fifth was the game-winner.

The game had a retro feel, partly because it was played in a stadium that was state-of-the-art in 1961. Charlie Brotman was the public-address announcer yesterday, just as he was for the Senators from 1956 through 1961 and then on Opening Day through 1971.

"It's been a sentimental journey," Brotman said in an interview. "The adrenaline is there just like it was in 1956 introducing President Eisenhower at Griffith Stadium. That was almost 50 years ago, and my first thought is that I'm too young to be that old."

Fans wore all sorts of retro gear. One wore a Harmon Killebrew jersey to honor the former Senators slugger.

NOTE: Veteran announcer Mel Proctor, who called Orioles games from 1984 to 1995, and former pitcher Ron Darling have been named the play-by-play announcer and game analyst, respectively, for Washington telecasts.

New York AB R H BI Washington AB R H BI

Reyes ss 2 0 0 0 Johnson 1b 4 0 1 0

Hernandz ss 3 1 1 0 Guzman ss 3 0 0 0

Matsui 2b 3 0 0 0 Desmnd ss 2 0 1 0

Cairo 2b 2 0 0 0 Vidro 2b 2 0 0 0

Beltran cf 1 0 0 0 Carroll 2b 1 0 0 0

Diaz rf 2 0 1 1 Guillen rf 3 0 0 0

Floyd lf 2 1 1 1 Bowie p 0 0 0 0

Hall cf 1 0 0 1 Rueckel p 1 0 0 0

Wright 3b 3 1 1 1 Majewski p 0 0 0 0

Woodwrd 3b 0 0 0 0 Wilkerson lf 2 1 1 0

Mntkwck 1b 2 0 0 0 Castilla 3b 3 1 1 0

Redman lf 1 0 0 0 Blanco 3b 1 0 0 0

Castro c 2 0 1 0 Church cf 2 1 1 3

Ring p 0 0 0 0 Sledge cf 2 0 0 0

Santiago p 0 0 0 0 Schneidr c 2 0 1 0

Valent rf-1b 4 0 0 0 Bennett c 1 0 0 0

Zambrano p 1 0 0 0 Ohka p 2 0 0 0

Flores ph 0 1 0 0 Davis rf 2 0 0 0

Petit p 1 0 0 0

DiFelice c 1 0 0 0

Totals 31 4 5 4 Totals 33 3 6 3

New York (NL) 000 220 000 - 4

Washington 030 000 000 - 3

E-Desmond. LOB-New York 9, Washington 9. 2B-Schneider. HR-Floyd, Wright (2), Church (2). S-Hall. SF-Hall.

New York IP H R ER BB SO

Zambrano 4 4 3 3 3 4

Petit W, 2-1 2 0 0 0 2 3

Ring 2 0 0 0 1 1

Santiago S, 1 1 2 0 0 0 0

Washington IP H R ER BB SO

Ohka L, 1-2 5 4 4 4 3 3

Bowie 0 0 0 0 0 0

Rueckel 2 1 0 0 3 0

Majewski 2 0 0 0 0 0

HBP-by Ohka (Flores). T-2:54. A-25,453.

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