It's National day in Washington

Excitement, `adrenaline' will be running high for players, faithful alike

Baseball

April 14, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - An hour before yesterday's game against the Atlanta Braves, several Washington Nationals were taking turns putting golf balls 25 feet toward small cans on either side of the visitors' clubhouse.

Ace Livan Hernandez was part of the putting contest; so were outfielder Brad Wilkerson and manager Frank Robinson, among others.

It was just a typical time-killing exercise in a major league clubhouse, one that will not be seen today in the team's renovated home digs of RFK Stadium.

There'll be plenty of time to waste, just not enough room.

Not with 500 or more media members scurrying around hours before RFK's first baseball opener since 1971.

The Nationals will attend a welcome-home luncheon at 11:30 a.m., after which many will head to the stadium for early batting practice. Then there will be several hours of waiting and answering question after question before the opening festivities begin at 5:30 p.m.

Another 90-plus minutes will pass before Hernandez throws his first pitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"It's going to be a long day before we get to the game," said Robinson. "To keep them focused for [tonight's] game is going to be a little tough. That's going to be my biggest job ... to try and keep them focused."

After all of the speculation and anticipation, with a nine-game road trip sprinkled in for good measure, the Nationals finally get to play a regular-season game in Washington.

"I really can't wait to go out and play in front of my crowd, our crowd," said second baseman Jose Vidro, who spent eight seasons with the franchise's former identity, the Montreal Expos. "It's going to be like a new beginning, something I've been looking forward to since they made that announcement."

Robinson, who has spent five decades in baseball, said he believes today's opener will be different from anything he has experienced.

"Opening Day is always a special occasion as far as the crowd and the excitement, but this is going to be a more special day because of the circumstances of this ballclub and the first game in the city in 34 years," he said.

"That's a lot of excitement and a lot of adrenaline and a lot enthusiasm locked up that's going to be unlocked."

The Nationals come back to Washington after surviving an arduous, nine-game road trip in which they went 5-4 in Philadelphia, Miami and Atlanta. Their biggest game of the early season, however, is today.

"What's important to us is to win a ballgame [today]," Robinson said. "That's what will cap it off and make it a very special day. The festivities and the welcome home luncheon is all very nice, but if we go out and lose a ballgame, it just kind of takes something away from the day."

Yet no matter what happens on the field, there is a sense that this team and its players are involved in a moment of history.

"It's something I can [say] when I am old that I pitched Opening Day 2005 with the Washington Nationals," said Hernandez, who also started the season opener in Philadelphia.

"It's good to represent the city and the capital of the United States. It's something special for me," the Cuba native said. "I have done a lot of things in baseball, got a lot of good things happen to me in baseball, but this is one of my most special. It's something I am never going to forget."

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