Nationals learn baseball in D.C. is different

After a 34-year filibuster, it's already clear that baseball in our nation's capital is like no other.

Originally Published: April 14, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- Baseball finally made it back to Washington on Thursday night after a 34-year filibuster. And it's already clear, after one game, that baseball in our nation's capital is never going to be confused with, say, baseball in Kansas City.

Baseball in Washington means the president dropping by after work, accompanied by just a few hundred of his closest friends, cabinet members, security forces, motorcade drivers and metal-detector operators.

Baseball in Washington means snipers on the center-field roof.

Watch highlights from the Nationals' triumphant debut in our nation's capital on Thursday.
• Motion: Nationals' first game
in D.C. a winner
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Baseball in Washington means Secret Service men in the dugout (in full uniform, of course.)

Baseball in Washington means that come game time, the House will not be in session. Or the Senate. Not to mention the Supreme Court, Superior Court or the U.S. Court of Appeals. Or even the FCC, FDA, DOE, FAA, FTC or GAO.

Baseball in Washington, you see, means that, beginning at 7:05 p.m. on warm summer evenings, all government business must now be conducted over hot dogs, peanuts and cold beverages, while arguing the bipartisan merits of the suicide squeeze.

But most of all, baseball in Washington means the hottest ticket in town is no longer sold at the Kennedy Center or the National Theatre. It's now sold by the local baseball team.

Once, people in D.C. considered it their civic duty to warm up to visiting ambassadors, or at least pulling Redskins guards. Now, they're quickly warming up to the Washington Nationals, a team which, almost fittingly, employs more players born outside the United States (16) than any other team in the major leagues.

Vinny Castilla
AP Photo/Susan WalshVinny Castilla was a single away from hitting for the cycle in the Nationals' first home game.
In fact, if there are many more nights like Thursday, these Nationals just might turn out to be more popular in this town than Social Security reform.

Talk about your good entrances, it's tough to beat a 5-3 win in which the starting pitcher (Livan Hernandez) doesn't give up a hit that leaves the infield until the ninth inning. And the No. 6 hitter (Vinny Castilla) doubles, triples, homers and drives in four runs.

It was all so euphoric, nobody even seemed to mind that President Bush marched out to throw the first pitch and had more trouble keeping down his fastball than the deficit.

"I thought he had great stuff," said catcher Brian Schneider, the catcher who had to bolt out of his crouch and imitate the Washington Monument just to haul down the president's four-seamer. "He threw that high strike perfectly, I thought.

"That's that high strike they've been calling this year," Schneider deadpanned. "It was definitely a strike."

OK, so apparently, there was some sort of executive order repealing QuesTec before the game. You want to fight that order in the House or the Senate?

"There were a lot of butterflies," Schneider admitted. "I mean, you really want to catch that pitch."

This, of course, is baseball in Washington. There's nothing like it. Or at least baseball in Montreal was nothing like it, anyway.

"Here, you could feel that intensity, that need, that desperation to have a ballclub," said second baseman Jose Vidro, a guy who spent 7½ seasons playing in Montreal, where he was adored by literally dozens of rabid Expos fans -- not even counting Youppi.

"Going around here," Vidro said, "people in the streets say, 'We're glad you're here.' In Montreal, we didn't have any of that. In Montreal, nobody recognized anybody."

Well, that isn't exactly true. There have been players recognized in the streets in Montreal. It's just that the one thing they had in common was, at some point, they'd all once forechecked Mario Lemieux.

Baseball in Washington, however, is a whole different deal. For instance, in pregame introductions Thursday, the trainer got a standing ovation.

And that was just the first of many standing Os -- culminating in the grand finale at 9:40 p.m., the moment the final out of the Nationals' first home win settled into the glove of center fielder Ryan Church.

"It was very exciting just to be a part of this whole situation," said left fielder Brad Wilkerson. "Just to see those fans living and dying with every pitch, booing and cheering with every pitch. We haven't had that. You could tell they really know baseball."

And after an entire career spent playing in front of people who knew a missed icing call when they saw one, Wilkerson appreciated the knowledge factor as much as anything that happened Thursday.

He especially seemed to appreciate that the first boo of the night -- not counting the pregame hooting of councilwoman Linda Cropp -- was directed at a Diamondback, not a National.

The target was reliever Lance Cormier, who found himself on the wrong end of a Tom Daschle-esque reception in the eighth inning. Castilla settled in at home plate, just a single away from the cycle -- and promptly got drilled in the shoulder by Cormier.

Clearly incensed at being denied the opportunity to witness the first cycle by a National since, well, last week, the 45,596 witnesses launched a boo so loud it could almost have been heard by Peter Angelos up the beltway. Then they kept up that booing for the whole inning, too. Amazing.

"You know, at that point in the game, a lot of those fans could have been out of there," Wilkerson said, "or not paying attention. But they knew what was going on. They knew Vinny had a chance to hit for the cycle. That was really impressive."

But then, this team had earned a night like this, a reception like this, a home like this. These guys had spent the previous two years putting up with a schedule obviously laid out by the Marquis de Sade Travel Agency -- featuring 11,000-mile road trips and home games conveniently located in cities 2,000 miles apart.

"So it's a great feeling," Wilkerson said, "to finally have a home."

And they found out Thursday that Washington will be a real home -- with fans who actually care whether they win or lose, and might even show up more than once a decade. But they also found out that Washington will be a very different kind of home.

Baseball in Washington means hotline telephones right there in the home clubhouse. Seriously. Of course, we can't absolutely verify that fact. But it comes from a source who claims to have seen it with his own eyes.

"We've got a phone in the trainer's room that goes straight to the president," Joey Eischen, the Nationals' newly appointed secretary for left-handed bullpen affairs, revealed before this game. "I'm not supposed to tell you that. But by the time people read it, he'll be gone, right?"

Those of us in a shocked national press corps tried to reassure Eischen that we'd testify for him at his traitor hearing. But he still seemed more nervous about having revealed this info than he does about facing Barry Bonds with two on in the eighth.

"I'm giving away CIA secrets here," Eischen said. "I'll probably be shot for this."

Baseball in Washington also means playing on a field with a big soccer circle in short right-center field, with four MLS Cup placards hanging on the outfield wall, with no radar boards to feed our mph addiction and with a few potholes in the "ballpark" that didn't quite get repaired in time.

"The field's going to need more work," Eischen said. "But you know what? I'd say the security of the president and the top officials who came here tonight is more important than whether our bullpen mound has the clay packed hard enough."

And even if it wasn't, we wouldn't recommend that any of those relievers blow a lead some night and then blame the president or the speaker of the House for getting his mechanics all screwed up.

"No, not the way they're looking at baseball right now," Eischen quipped. "We've got to make some friends in Congress."

Well, they made some Thursday, all right. In fact, Eischen literally went above and beyond the call of duty to befriend one of his friendly neighborhood rooftop snipers -- firing a baseball a couple of hundred feet into the sky to give one of them a pregame souvenir.

"Hit him right in the chest," Eischen bragged afterward. "I was worried about him dropping it, because he was only going to get one shot."

Only in Washington do the relievers have to factor in the happiness of the ballpark snipers. But Eischen said their presence didn't bother him a bit.

"As long as they're not aimed at me," he chuckled. "That's all that matters."

Speaking of aim, baseball in Washington also means trying to drive to a stadium that nobody in baseball has had to locate since the Nixon administration. And that already has proved to be big trouble.

Coach Tom McCraw -- a guy who once played in this same stadium, for the 1971 Senators -- confessed that even he couldn't find his way back from the stadium to his hotel Wednesday.

"I went through every freaking neighborhood in Washington," McCraw said."I circled the hell out of that place."

And if he's getting lost, it should come as no surprise that, for these current players, the challenge of getting to the park has all the makings of the next Fox reality show.

Eischen, in fact, hasn't even been to his apartment yet -- because he can't find it. Just to be safe, he stayed in the team hotel Wednesday night -- and told his neighbor, Wilkerson, that "my car is staying with the valet until he comes and escorts me to my new facilities."

"You know, I grew up in L.A., so I'm pretty good at cities," Eischen said. "But this place, man, you've got streets all over the place. You've got streets going in all directions. Then you've got those diagonal streets coming across. I can't figure that out."

Well, he couldn't figure it out until he started doing some research, anyhow.

"I heard from one of the security guys that Frenchmen built this town, trying to get everyone lost," he reported. "At least that's the story I got today. They built it this way so if somebody tried to invade, they couldn't find the White House because they'd get lost along the way. And the way it looks, they did a good job at that."

All right, so that's not exactly true. But it still seems appropriate -- because this is an entire franchise that got lost on the way to the ballpark.

Now, though, the Washington Nationals have found their way. And there's no telling how dangerous that might make them.

"Already, this definitely feels like home," Schneider said. "We don't have to think about packing up our lockers in two days and moving on. I know that. So we're home. Finally."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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