After so much time in limbo, the Washington Nationals (search) nee Montreal Expos open the preseason Wednesday by hosting the New York Mets (search), giving baseball fans in the nation's capital their first chance to root, root, root for the home team since the Senators left for Texas after the 1971 season.
"It's going to be a very special day, even though it's just spring training," general manager Jim Bowden (search) said Tuesday in his office overlooking the field at Space Coast Stadium, where groundskeepers were mowing grass and raking dirt.
"You normally don't televise the very first game of spring training," he added, "but we're on national television tomorrow because this is a historic moment."
After saying earlier he wouldn't play a full complement of regulars, manager Frank Robinson shifted gears a bit and is going Wednesday with a starting lineup that might be the same when the team heads north.
Endy Chavez (search) will lead off and play center field, followed by Cristian Guzman (shortstop), Jose Vidro (second base), Jose Guillen (right field), Brad Wilkerson (left field), Vinny Castilla (third base), Nick Johnson (first base) and Brian Schneider (catcher). The starting pitcher will be Tony Armas Jr., who appeared in a total of just 21 games the past two seasons because of major shoulder surgery.
Only Vidro and Schneider manned the same positions for Montreal on opening day in 2004.
"Frank told me how he wasn't going to start his regulars for the first few days, but, boy, they're all in there tomorrow, at least for the first couple of innings," Bowden said. "And I think that's good, because it allows the fans in Washington as well as America to see some of our players. A lot of these players are not very well known. They will be in six months."
The Mets will bring a watered-down roster, giving such stars as Pedro Martinez (search) and Mike Piazza the day off. But key free-agent signing Carlos Beltran will make the trip, as will the regular infield quartet and Tom Glavine, Wednesday's starter.
"It's important to go out and play sound fundamental baseball in spring training; I don't put a lot of emphasis on winning," Mets manager Willie Randolph said in Port St. Lucie.
Last year's Expos didn't do a lot of winning, finishing 29 games out of first place in the NL East. But hope always springs eternal at spring training, and with some new faces and — most importantly — a semblance of normalcy setting in, a better record is widely expected around these parts.
"Everybody wants a home," Wilkerson said. "We bring a lot of energy to the ballpark, and it's going to give us an advantage. Now that that's all behind us, we can bring more and more energy."
There are still signs of the state of flux around the team's spring training home.
A groundskeeper wore an Expos cap while driving through the practice fields Tuesday. Game-worn Montreal jerseys are available in the souvenir shop, marked down from $125 to $50. The stadium seats and the lockers in the home and visiting clubhouses are teal, the color of the Florida Marlins, a previous resident.
And still unresolved is the impending sale of the Nationals, currently owned by baseball's other 29 franchises. With a new home, new name, new uniforms, all that's seemingly missing is a new owner to give Robinson and his players what they've wanted for so long: to be like just like any other major league team.
"I see the enthusiasm throughout this organization — the veteran players and the youngsters — because they understand now the situation is much better than it was," Robinson said.
"They have endured. They certainly have been kind of teased the last few years about how the club is going to be sold, not it's not, yes it is, no it's not. They're really happy about this situation finally being resolved."
"And I think," he added, "you'll see the result on the field. I really do."