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In nation's capital, baseball reaches home

WASHINGTON -- Emotions were at a fever pitch last night as Washington's political elite mingled with baseball fanatics from every walk of life to hail the return of the American pastime to the nation's capital for the first time in three decades.

President Bush threw out the traditional first ball at the Washington Nationals' home opener at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, welcoming back Major League Baseball 34 years after the old Washington Senators fled south to Texas.

The new hometown team took the field amid fireworks and an outfield draped in an enormous American flag. The celebratory mood was broken only momentarily when Baltimore Orioles fans, gave a resounding ''Os" chant during the singing of the national anthem -- only to be booed by newly-minted Nats fans.

''The fans are shell-shocked," said Jim Aber, 39, a Brookline native who lives in Baltimore. ''They don't know how to behave."

There were some glitches. Some concession stands ran out of cups, and peanuts were gone after the first few innings.

Bush, a former part owner of the Texas Rangers, took to the mound decked out in a red Nationals jacket for the ceremonial first pitch, a tradition begun 95 years ago when President William Howard Taft tossed out the first ball on opening day.

As an added bonus, the team -- formerly the Montreal Expos and generally assumed to be dreadful -- was showing signs of life tied for first in the National League East. Last night, they beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 5-3, bringing their record to 6-4.

''There is a lot of excitement," said Phil Peter of Potomac, Md., a Washington attorney and former lobbyist for General Electric. ''People have been waiting a long time for this day and are delighted that the new team is playing as well as it is. I think tonight is one of those events where years from now people will say they were there. A lot of people who weren't there will say they were there."

Behind the excitement was a touch of nervousness: Washington has had teams twice before, only to lose them because of weak fan support. Some have suggested that the city might not be suited to baseball. People move in and out too fast to develop deep ties to a team, and Washington summers are humid and unpleasant. Also, some think the city's majority African-American population may not get as excited about baseball as football or basketball.

But to the fans who gathered outside the defiantly unquaint RFK Stadium -- which is expected to be replaced, using public money -- as well as those in offices who put down their policy papers to pick up the sports section yesterday, baseball has found a home in the nation's capital.

''Washington is a good sports town, and with the instant success of this team it is a tough ticket now," said Bill Connors of Alexandria, Va., a self-described ballpark aficionado who said RFK Stadium was the 106th venue -- major and minor league -- he has visited.

The Senate adjourned early so members could get to their boxes. Several local television stations broadcast their morning news shows from the park. Procrastinators gathered at the box office after daybreak with hopes of becoming one of an estimated 46,000 fans at the sold-out home opener. Some who purchased tickets months ago that never arrived showed up early to complain -- and get their promised tickets.

Scalpers, cellphones glued to their ears, were milling near the D.C. National Guard Armory next door with wide grins: this day it would be a seller's market.

Not only is baseball back after more than a generation of longing, but the Nats, as the Nationals have become known, don't appear to be half bad. They took the field last night after nine days on the road capped by winning two out of three against the Atlanta Braves, perennial NL East champions.

But their arrival was not without controversy.

Citizens who oppose the city's plan to finance a new stadium with public money held a small protest outside the park before the game.

''It's not against the game or the team," said John Capozzi, head of No D.C. Taxes for Baseball. ''I have tickets to the game. I am excited about going. But schools should be the top priority, not stadiums."

But city leaders and fans have high hopes. Peter, a season-ticket holder, believes the team, with its relatively affordable ticket prices, ''will be great for families. I think their prices are extraordinarily reasonable for a big league sporting event. I think it will really have a broad base in this city."

Bryan Bender can be reached at

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