Nationals’ home opener is a smash

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- For the Nationals, a day for the ages even had a storybook night.

What began as a vision when the Expos bolted Montreal 3 1/2 years ago finally became reality Sunday at the brand-new $611-million Nationals Park in Washington. And on a day of beginnings, star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman gave Washington an ideal ending, launching a walk-off home run with two out in the ninth inning to give the Nationals a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves.

“You can’t really write up a script better than that,” Zimmerman said.

President Bush set the script into motion, delivering the ceremonial opening-day first pitch, albeit to a chorus of mostly boos. Political celebrities such as Colin Powell lined the stands. Cameras flashed at every glance, capturing sparkling views of the Capitol dome and Washington Monument in the skyline.


The “Racing Presidents” mascots gave a unique twist to Milwaukee’s sausage races. The stadium atmosphere resembled that of a carnival, opening five hours before game time. The long-neglected Capitol Riverfront of southeast Washington suddenly sprung back to life.

“We’re back where we belong,” said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who attended the opener. “We’re back in a baseball cathedral.”

Even on a night with a walk-off blast from the franchise player, the larger theme was evident at every turn. It’s the dawn of a new era in Washington baseball history.

“Every year’s opening day is exciting, but obviously it was quite a bit more important for us and we’re thrilled,” Nationals team President Stan Kasten said. “We understand the importance of representing our pastime in the nation’s capital.

“When we came here, we were determined to build a championship franchise. That would never happen unless we had this kind of venue.”

In contrast to the outdated and cavernous RFK Stadium used since the Nationals came to Washington, the state-of-the-art venue is oriented toward the future. Where many new ballparks have gone retro, Nationals Park -- built over a two-year span -- boasts a sleek, stone-white-and-glass architectural design.

The 102-foot-by-47-foot high-definition video board is the largest in baseball, and tickets are sold through computerized kiosks. Fans walk to the park from a remodeled subway station a block away and pass through a virtual street fair complete with red, white and blue balloon arches.

“To be able to play your games in the Taj Mahal of baseball stadiums -- to be able to call this home, it’s a dream come true,” General Manager Jim Bowden said. “It’s a surreal experience.”


Naturally, the new Washington stadium includes numerous political references, in addition to the views and the president’s first pitch. A “President’s Club” section of the park includes 12 portraits of former presidents throwing out first pitches. And even the expansive team clubhouse is oval-shaped, in a nod to the Oval Office.

“It’s the best ballpark in America, in the most powerful city,” Bowden said. “There are just so many different views that you’ll only find in D.C. The cherry blossoms, the Capitol building in certain seats, the monuments, the Navy ship, the president of the United States throwing out the first pitch. It’s very special and it’s first-class.”

While Sunday’s sold-out opener marked a rebirth for Washington baseball, it also served as a rebirth for Odalis Perez. The left-hander, traded by the Dodgers two years ago, made the start for the Nationals and fired the first regular-season competitive pitch in stadium history -- an 89-mph fastball fouled off by Atlanta’s Kelly Johnson.

Perez lasted five innings on a cold night and pitched well, giving up only a solo home run to Chipper Jones. The field -- 335 feet down the lines and 402 to center -- was expected to be more hitter-friendly than RFK, but it didn’t play that way Sunday.


The screaming crowd of 39,389 rose to its feet with two out in the top of the ninth and Washington leading 2-1, only to be silenced when a wild pitch from Jon Rauch allowed the tying run to score. But that only set the table for Zimmerman’s dramatics.

“The franchise player came through in the first game in the new stadium,” said Manager Manny Acta, who also caught Bush’s ceremonial pitch. “It couldn’t have been any better.”