Nats make a pitch for first game

Washington asks to restore tradition of president throwing out season's inaugural ball

Baseball

March 25, 2006|By JEFF BARKER | JEFF BARKER,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- Once, there was a certain order to the opening of the baseball season as predictable and familiar as the seventh-inning stretch.

The American League season began with the Washington team hosting the first game. The president - from William Howard Taft to Richard Nixon - usually tossed out the first pitch. The National League season began the same day in Cincinnati.

For Washingtonians, that rite of spring ended when the Washington Senators left town after the 1971 season and became the Texas Rangers.

But now Washington's new team - the Nationals - is quietly asking baseball to restore the tradition of a special early game to spotlight the coming together of two American institutions, baseball and the presidency.

"We would hope we could continue a tradition that started many, many years ago," team president Tony Tavares said.

Charlie Brotman, 78, who introduced a handful of presidents to Washington crowds as the Senators' longtime public-address announcer, hopes so, too. "Baseball is all about tradition, for heaven's sake, and this tradition has been going on since Taft," Brotman said. "Maybe we can make a comeback."

But Major League Baseball's preliminary response illustrates how the game - and life - has changed since Taft began the ritual in 1910. Or since President John F. Kennedy inaugurated the 1961 season from the stands of Griffith Stadium, after first stopping to light up a cigar.

"Baseball is a traditional game, but a lot of things have changed," said Katy Feeney, baseball's senior vice president for scheduling and club relations. "Things aren't as simple as they used to be."

Feeney said baseball will accommodate Washington where it can. But she said there are complications that did not exist when Nixon tossed out the final Opening Day pitch in the city before the team left.

There are more teams and more divisions that create scheduling hassles. There is heightened concern about presidential security. There are television contracts to honor, such as the multiyear deal in which ESPN is promised the first game of the season on a Sunday night.

Baseball could suggest that ESPN include the Nationals in their opening games. But Feeney said she doubted the network would want to lock in one team when it can more flexibly rotate its offerings to include, for example, the previous year's World Series winner as ESPN has this year with the April 2 opener between the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians.

It's too late for the Nationals this season, of course. Not only does Washington not open its season ahead of other teams, but it also doesn't begin the year at home. To make matters worse for the club, Tavares said President Bush has a scheduling conflict that may prevent him from appearing at the first home game nine days into the season on April 11.

Last season, Bush, wearing a red Nationals jacket, delivered a ceremonial toss to mark the Nationals' first game in their new city, but it was not baseball's Opening Day. In fact, the season was already a week and a half old.

Bush, a former managing partner of the Texas Rangers, attended one more Nationals game after that, Tavares said.

"He attended far fewer games last year than we expected, though his Cabinet was there quite a bit," Vince Morris, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, said in an e-mail.

The White House declined to comment.

After the Senators left Washington, Baltimore hosted a half-dozen presidential Opening Day visits.

Tavares has his eye on the future. Specifically, he's entranced with the possibility of his team opening the 2008 National League season before most or all the other clubs and with the chief executive in attendance. That's the season in which the city's new steel, glass and concrete stadium is scheduled to open. "I have a vision with the new stadium opening up and this happening, and it would be spectacular," Tavares said.

At the least, Nationals officials hope baseball will allow the team in the future to begin the season at home.

Said Feeney: "We can definitely work on that."

That is a privilege already accorded the Cincinnati Reds, who once opened every National League season with an early game but now settle for playing in its own stadium on baseball's first full day.

A parade is held each year in Cincinnati in conjunction with the opener.

That's the sort of festival atmosphere Washington used to bring to openers, said Brotman, the former public address announcer. He said presidents used to toss the ball from the stands rather than from the mound as they do now.

"We were the opening act of Major League Baseball. We were the official presenters," Brotman said.

"We're still the nation's capital, and we should be back in business."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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