WASHINGTON – It was an all-day party amid cheers, chants and popping flashbulbs, highlighted by President Bush's first pitch and old-timers who yielded the field to Washington's new team.
Major league baseball returned Thursday to a city that had gone 12,250 days — the Senators left in 1971 — without hosting a regular season big-league game.
Thursday night's Washington Nationals (search) home opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks (search) was an exclamation point for celebrations that began 61/2 months ago with the announcement that the Montreal Expos were heading south.
"Baseball is back, and happy days are here again!" proclaimed 77-year-old former Senators public address announcer Charlie Brotman, who returned to preside over one more home opener.
Even the result was a happy one, a 5-3 victory that moved the Nationals into sole possession of first place in the NL East. The stands literally shook as fans cheered a three-run rally in the fourth inning.
Bush was cheered as he waved to the crowd and to players during his walk to the mound. He toed the rubber and quickly fired a pitch over the plate — slightly high, perhaps — to Nationals catcher Brian Schneider (search).
Many who had the tough-to-get tickets for the game missed the moment because security lines were 20 deep when the game started. Anyone watching on television also missed the presidential pitch because it came during a commercial break, even though the schedule for the ceremonies was known well in advance.
Members of the old Senators took positions in the field. Slugger Frank Howard, in left field, got the biggest ovation. Then they handed the gloves to the Nationals players when the modern-day team took the field.
"I'm numb. I'm raking it all in," said former two-time batting champ Mickey Vernon, who turns 87 next week and was at first base. "It's been a long while coming, but for those with patience, something good comes along."
Flashbulbs sparkled when Washington's Livan Hernandez threw the opening pitch, a strike to Craig Counsell. The ball was taken out of play to be preserved for posterity.
Seven hours before the game, players were serenaded with chants of "Lets go, Nats!" at a $1,500-per-table VIP luncheon. A high school marching band played in the hall where the Nationals bathed in the cheers from 1,000 of the city's top businessmen and political figures.
The players never got that kind of treatment in Montreal, where crowds were small and some "home" games were farmed out to Puerto Rico to raise money.
"It's a lot of stuff we're not used to," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. "Montreal seemed so much easier. It's taxing, but I'd rather have it that way than no recognition at all."
Tickets were for the 46,000-seat RFK Stadium were hard to come by, even for some well-heeled Washingtonians. Leaders in Congress allowed no votes after 5 p.m. so lawmakers and staffers could attend the game.
The presidential first pitch debuted on April 14, 1910, when William Howard Taft tossed out a ball before a Senators-Athletics game.
Bush, a former part-owner the Texas Rangers, was the 12th president given the honor of throwing out a first pitch in Washington, and the first since Richard Nixon in 1969. After the Senators left, presidents performed the ceremony in other cities; Bush did the honors in St. Louis last year.
"Somebody said, 'How do you describe the presidency?' I said it is a decision-making job. I've got a decision to make today. Do I go with a fastball or do I go with a slider?" President Bush said before the game, when he spoke at a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
The Nationals were the last team in the majors to play a home game this season. That probably was for the best, given the compressed schedule for renovating the stadium. Officials are still trying to figure out how to keep the Nationals' new batting tunnel from flooding.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Nationals arrived in town with a winning record, even though they are playing with much of the same roster that finished last in 2004 in Montreal.
"Believe me, this club will not finish last in the National League East," manager Frank Robinson said. "I've heard people said this the Montreal Expos in Washington Nationals uniforms. Those people don't know what they're talking about. They are not the Montreal Expos in Washington Nationals uniforms. They are the Washington Nationals."