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Pres. Bush tosses first pitch to resume tradition

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 home opener against the
Arizona Diamondbacks was a joyous exclamation point for
celebrations that began 6½ 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.

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.

Washington is playing with much of the same roster that finished
last in 2004 in Montreal, although the players are finding they
have much greater fan support than they had in Canada.

"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."