A Confluence of History, Tradition and Baseball
O pening Day in Washington goes back to 1871, when a team called the Olympic Base Ball Club of Washington played in a league called the National Association. The Olympics became the Nationals in 1872, and for the next 100 years baseball teams representing Washington opened the baseball season in such leagues as the American League, National League, Negro National League and others.
Presidential openers began in 1910, when President William Howard Taft threw out the first ball at American League Park (Florida and Trinidad streets NE). That was followed by first pitches by 10 additional presidents at Griffith Stadium and RFK until the Senators left for Texas after the 1971 season.
Richard Nixon was the last president to throw out a first pitch in Washington (1969) until President Bush ended the drought by throwing out the first pitch of Major League Baseball’s return to Washington on April 14, 2005.
That brings us to tomorrow’s Opening Day, the last at RFK Stadium with the new 41,000-seat stadium on the Anacostia waterfront in Southeast scheduled to open next April. President Bush won’t be on the mound because of a scheduling conflict, although the former owner of the Texas Rangers has seen the Nats at RFK several times during the past two seasons.
“The presidential opener is a phenomenal tradition we hope to revive next year,” said Nationals President Stan Kasten, who said the day will be marked by bands, the unfurling of a huge American flag, flyover by military jets and players greeting fans at the gate.
“Presidential openers are part of our history and show how important the game has been,” Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig said. “Presidential openers have been a wonderful tradition that I hope continues — with most occurring in Washington.”
Friday’s Wall Street Journal reported that the national obsession of attending Opening Day throughout Major League Baseball has resulted in a scramble for tickets at many stadiums. That’s not the case in Washington, where rebuilding the team’s farm system took precedence over amore expensive roster. That decision resulted in gloomy preseason forecasts and a modest season ticket base (15,000-16,000).
“We’ll push 40,000 for the opener” at RFK (capacity 45,596), Kasten said. “We’ve made good progress this spring. I think we’re building something special.”
Kasten’s optimism, the club’s aggressive marketing over the past several weeks and some decent pitching during spring training have brightened the outlook for the Nats’ third season.
But how the fans respond to the Ted Lerner-Kasten ownership strategy might be as interesting to watch as the team’s performance on the field. Washington area fans clamored for years to get their own team. They noted that the region has 4.5 million residents and was deserving. The new stadium opens in 2008, but the game is here now. We’ll see how many people notice.
Georgetown’s stunning 96-84 overtime victory over North Carolina in the East Region final last Sunday, which pushed the Hoyas to the Final Four in John Thompson III’s third season, had people talking Hoyas past and present.
Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan, who played for Rutgers against John Thompson Jr.’s teams in the mid-1970s: “They always played defense under Big John. Very aggressive with lots of muscle. Active on the glass. Lots of guys from the D.C. area. They still come from the area. I’ve always been proud of that.”
Wizards center Etan Thomas, who played against Georgetown for Syracuse from 1996 through 2000: “It was special. Always a great game that you knew would be physical.”
Wizards assistant coach Tom Young, who coached against Georgetown at American University and Rutgers early in Thompson’s career: “His defense always won for him. John made it difficult to run your stuff against him.”
Roger Mason Jr., Wizards guard and graduate of Good Counsel and the University of Virginia: “Georgetown was always the team for me growing up here, with Allen Iverson, Victor Page and Alonzo Mourning. I loved them. I like what they’re doing now. Great win over North Carolina.”
John Thompson Jr., on calling the game on radio last Sunday for Westwood One: “I panicked. I was stunned. I couldn’t say a word.”
John Thompson III, at a news conference Friday, on his father: “When he coached he never told anyone anything. Now he talks about the family and everything else.”
Whose Home Ice?
I went to Verizon Center on Tuesday night to see the Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins (100 points through Friday ) defeat the Alex Ovechkin-led Capitals (66 points), 4-3. The arena was sold out (18,277), with about half the crowd supporting the Penguins. Also, half the passengers on the Metro were wearing Penguins sweaters, prompting these questions:
When did so many people from Pittsburgh move here?
Why? What do they do? Do you think they saw “Flashdance”? Do they read The Post?
Do those fans who drove here from Pittsburgh in Pens sweaters also travel to Philadelphia and live to tell their stories?
If Pittsburgh is such a great hockey town, how come the team almost moved to Las Vegas?
Explained Caps owner Ted Leonsis: “We sold about 2,000 tickets to Pens fans in Pittsburgh. The rest were from D.C. —Pennsylvania transplants that have come out to show support for their great young team. I’m sure our fans will do likewise when we are a great team. They’ve been rebuilding for six years; we hope to be very good a lot sooner.”
K The Redskins have left me speechless and without answers. Why overpay linebacker Lance Briggs when Rocky McIntosh (second-round pick last year) seems capable?
Why the upcoming schmooze with quarterback JaMarcus Russell of LSU, who figures to be the top player taken in the draft? Is someone at Redskins Park playing fantasy games? Is someone out there messing with Jason Campbell’s mind? Who comes up with these cockamamie ideas? K Suggestion for WRC (Channel 4): Hire Joe Theismann. K “Friday Night Lights” Update: Dillon defeated the Brantley Vikings, 14-8, in the Texas high school football semifinals Wednesday night on QB Matt Saracen’s bootleg touchdown run on the game’s final play. The game was played in the rain in a Dillon cow pasture after a toxic spill made the Panthers’ home field unusable. “Coach [Eric] Taylor’s field of dreams,” grumbled rival coaches. Booster Buddy Garrity is now providing cash gifts to players, all of whom have more fun than I did at Miami Beach High (’58).
President Bush re-inaugurated the tradition of first pitches at the Nationals’ 2005 home opener. “Presidential openers are part of our history,” Commissioner Bud Selig said.