After 34 years, a night to remember

Long after the Senators' exit, the Nationals give fans a win and lots of nostalgia

Baseball Returns To D.c.

April 15, 2005|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - With ceremony befitting an inauguration, Washington grandly welcomed back a lost piece of itself last night as baseball returned for the first time in 33 seasons to the same stadium it had abruptly abandoned.

On a nostalgia-rich evening, the city began a new chapter to its baseball story with a 5-3 victory. The previous chapter had ended chaotically when fans rushed the field with two outs in the ninth inning and forced the Washington Senators to forfeit their final game in 1971. The team became the Texas Rangers the next year.

The Senators' last pitcher in that game, Joe Grzenda, 67, returned last night with the baseball he never got to throw for the final out. He handed the ball to President Bush, who walked to the mound from the dugout of the newly minted Washington Nationals wearing slacks and a warm-up jacket.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption on the front page of yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly identified Jones Lindner, 8, of Washington, D.C. Jones was shown waving a flag before the first home baseball game of the Washington Nationals.
The Sun regrets the error.

With an easy motion, Bush threw a high pitch to Washington catcher Brian Schneider, becoming the first president since Richard Nixon in 1969 to toss a ceremonial first pitch in the nation's capital.

Schneider said the pitch was a strike. "I'm a lucky guy, and I'll always remember this day for the rest of my life," said Schneider, who with his teammates, met the president in the lockeroom before the game.

To longtime District residents, the arrival of the team and the president was about setting things right. And what better place to do it, they said, than 44-year-old Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, scene of that final depressing game.

"I remember that night," said Matt Cafritz, a Washington construction executive who brought his family to last night's game. "It was cloudy and overcast. Today, the sun is shining and we're in first place."

The Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, arrived after Mayor Anthony A. Williams led a multiyear, painstaking effort to lure the franchise and secure funding from the D.C. Council for a new stadium. "We've come full circle," the mayor said. "I think it's a grand kind of dramatic circle that a playwright would be proud of."

Said Dick Bosman, 61, a pitcher on Washington's 1971 team: "This is closure for me, it really is. That last game here was chaotic. You just knew something was going to happen, and it turned into mayhem."

Eager to pay homage to the past, the Nationals invited Bosman and eight other former Senators to attend last night's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, which was the team's home opener after nine road games. The old ballplayers walked slowly and stiffly to their old positions before being replaced on the field by their modern counterparts.

`Hondo' Howard

The biggest ovation from the crowd of 45,596 was saved for Frank "Hondo" Howard, the Senators' 6-foot-7, perennial home run king, whose name graces a new "Washington Hall of Stars" placard above the right-field fence. As Howard left the field, he shook hands with his "replacement," Nationals outfielder Brad Wilkerson, and handed Wilkerson the younger player's glove.

The first pitch at 7:06 was a strike to Arizona's Craig Counsell, who struck out. The home fans, accustomed to mostly losing baseball teams in the city's past, were treated to a win.

The sold-out game had the exclusive feel of a White House event. Ticket brokers were offering as much as $1,250 for the best seats. "This is like a Super Bowl-type ticket," said radio personality and local baseball historian Phil Wood. "This is where people are going to say that they were."

The game was attended by the president and first lady Laura Bush, as well as baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and numerous members of Congress and the D.C. Council. While most of the elected officials were applauded, Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp was booed by the crowd.

Several times, Cropp had delayed the mayor's push for stadium funding last year on grounds that the city should not be required to foot the entire stadium tab, estimated to be up to $581 million. She won a compromise under which the city is pursuing private financing to offset a portion of the cost.

Cropp continued to wave her red Nationals cap even as the crowd jeered.

The Nationals are playing at RFK for at least three years while the new stadium is built. The city has been negotiating a deal with the Department of Defense under which the old stadium name could be modified to something like "Armed Forces Field at RFK."

"They're close to culmination," the mayor said last night of the talks. Fans did notice a massive Corvette billboard above the stadium's main entrance.

A retro feel

The game had a retro atmosphere, partly because RFK Stadium, which was given an $18.5 million facelift, is time-worn and lacks luxury boxes. "We put a lot of lipstick on this old pig," said Nationals President Tony Tavares.

Even the presidential box - outfitted with the presidential seal and red, white and blue bunting - was less than glamorous. The box has a large pipe crawling up its right side.

But few fans seemed to mind minor inconveniences such as waiting in lines that snaked up to 30 yards to get through the metal detectors necessitated by the president's visit.

One of the few discordant notes was struck by a fan angry at Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos for opposing Washington's bid for a team because of concern that the region can't support two ballclubs.

"Dear Angelos. You Stink. Signed, Everyone," said a banner hung by the fan in the upper deck.

Sun staff writer Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

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