The Nationals Open and Show Baseball's Power

The Nationals roster lines up during the opening ceremonies with Screech
Nico Dodd
The Nationals roster lines up during the opening ceremonies with Screech

What befits a baseball opening day the most? Well, if you’re a Washington Nationals fan, a perfect opening day would consist of the two young faces of the franchise doing what they do best.

It would be Stephen Strasburg pitching seven innings of shutout, three-hit ball.

It would be Bryce Harper, after picking up his NL rookie of the year award, showing why he got it by hitting not one but two home runs, providing the winning margin of a 2-0 victory opening day victory over the Miami Marlins who floundered at the plate like beached—well, you know—fish.

“He hit that one straight and up,” a Nats employee on the second level told us. “I heard it went straight over center field.”

That it did. Straight, like a Tell arrow through an apple, so sudden you barely had time to wonder if that really happened.

That was in the first inning, on a one-ball count and it happened so fast that it took a second for the roar of the crowd to build to an even bigger roar. My thought was more like “Holy s---" but the guy waving his jacket like a toreador was speechlessly grinning. A smile formed on the face of a white-haired fan up here, spreading out to his beard stubble. He was wearing a Harper jacket.

But even before the Harper fireworks, the methodical Strasburg bearing and pitching, the day was a gift to everyone—fans, officials, players, and, okay, maybe not the Marlin players in their grayish uniforms taking batting practice. But they didn’t know that then.

The Marlins, like everyone else and ourselves, basked in God’s green acres of baseball turf, in outfield and infield, in blues skies and throw and catch warm-ups, and in walking side by side fathers and sons and grandfathers and granddaughters. “I’m being grandpop today,” the grandpop from Fairfax said. “Only thing is, I can’t keep up with her.”

You could see the difference in the air and on the Metro—if somebody wasn’t coming from the zoo on a Monday late morning, they were for sure going to the Nationals game, surging a lot out of Virginia in a sea of red and white, Zimmermans, Strasbergs, Harpers and Desmonds and worthy Werths, boyfriends and girlfriends, and a 14-month-old boy with his dad behind home plate. “First time,” his dad said. At least he wasn’t trading stocks on eBay or selling them to us.

Opening day is the opening of sacred ground and as yet untarnished hopes and the laying to rest of the year before. It was, after all, the grandest of years and the suddenly worst kind of year that had the Nationals, once the losingest team in baseball, rising to the heights of baseball’s best record, only to lose a game they had in hand, a strike away from advancing to the National League playoffs.

The scoreboard celebrated for us—Jason Werth’s walk-off home run was seen again, Strasburg’s easy motions and Harper’s dirty uniform derring-do.

Now, the Washington Nationals are being picked as World Series by Sports Illustrated, a curse in some quarters with historical examples of being so, or just an embellishment of the notion that we have a pretty damn good team here.

We all, we happy few gathered at home plate to see Adam LaRoche, who looks like a ballplayer personified, a grown up still playing a man-child game and Harper, a man child playing like a gutsy grownup. They—and ageless manager Davey Johnson and general manager Mike Rizzo, were all honored with various awards at home plate.

In April in spring, a baseball stadium is a kind of holy place before the grass gets torn up, the dust scattered, —the temples are home plate, first base, second base and third base, the fields of play are green and pristine, and now, before someone hollers the sacred beginnings of ball playing—which is to say “Play ball”—the uniforms, especially the Nats’ white with red names and numbers, seem blindingly washed, like the togas of senators on a stroll—Washington senators. In his uniform, Davey Johnson looked like he was going to the prom.

The bald eagle Screech—who still looks like a chicken by another name—wandered, well, like some other kind of bird, among the gathered folks, television reporters, the odd writer, the photographers, the U.S. Army Chorus, the veteran throwing out the first ball, the ball girls and ball boys. Mayor Vincent Gray, a ballplayer of some renown, showed up to deliver the lineup and when we asked him if he was still playing he said, “You bet.” He sounded so confident that we almost asked him if he was running again for mayor, but we refrained. Because Gray was today like the rest of us a fan glad to be here and politics in Washington stayed outside the gates with no tickets to the game.

Children ran out into the field at one point taking up the position. “America the Beautiful” was heard and country songs and songs I never heard before. They could have been the theme from “Field of Dreams”, or “The Natural”, and why not.

The announcer called out everyone's name on both team and so many job-holders among the Nats—even the assistant massage therapist got to trout out on to the field—that I started to wait for my name to be called but in vain.

I went to Easter Mass on Sunday—and opening day today. For different reasons, each occasion had the effect of turning me for a second into a small boy again—awed with memory in the first case, happy in the sun in the second.

Happy day. The Washington Nationals are in first place and undefeated. What befits a baseball opening day more than that?

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Mon, 22 Dec 2014 16:21:32 -0500

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