Does Opening Day Mean More to Washington Nationals Fans?

For the continental United States and Canadian portion of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, today is Opening Day. Long ago, in 1969, baseball lost its place atop the American sports parthenon to the National Football League, but this day still attracts nationwide attention and sparks people’s feelings of renewal and hope.

A book, “Why Time Begins on Opening Day” by the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell (1995, Penguin Sports Library) explains why, at the beginning of each baseball season, it is as if time begins anew.

Fans of the Washington Nationals, especially those 50 or older, hold today especially dear, they savor it more, perhaps, than fans in other cities with major league baseball teams. Some towns, like New York, Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, have celebrated this day for more than a century. Others, like Miami, Colorado, Toronto, Arizona, and Tampa Bay waited many years to partake, but have repeated the joyful ritual ever since.

Seattle, Milwaukee, Kansas City, even New York, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, have lost teams, but they either already had a second team or welcomed a new team a few years later. None waited as long as the nation’s capital’s 33-year slog through endless rainouts and off-days.

And not every opener since baseball returned has been the joyful, unspoiled occasion it is supposed to be. In 2006, Nationals fans had their elation at the dawn of baseball’s second season sullied by the still unresolved ownership situation, an aging RFK stadium that baseball made not a single upgrade to despite an average attendance of more than 33,000 per game the previous season, and the bitter aftermath of the stadium lease fight between baseball and the D.C. City Council that nearly ruined everything.

Even worse, the 2010 debacle when Phillies’ fans, at Stan Kasten’s behest, invaded Nationals Park by the busload, doing untold physical damage to the stadium and lasting psychological damage to young children; and President Obama, in a stunt some described as “beyond lame” threw out the ceremonial first pitch with a White Sox hat perched on his head. Then Washington manager Jim Riggleman, through clenched teeth, aptly summed up Nats’ fans opinion of the Commander in Chief, “Bad move there,” he said.

But even those opening days were better than the 1972-2004 seasons when Washington baseball fans had to stand like little children with their noses pressed against the restaurant glass while folks in 30 other cities, most far smaller than the Washington, D.C. metro area, feasted.  Thirty-three seasons is a long time to wander in the baseball wilderness.

The nearness of Baltimore offered cold comfort. Proximity to the real thing is no substitute for it. It wasn’t our town, our park, our guys. Not even close.

But enough of that. The wait ended in April 2005, on one of the happiest days in Washington sports history. The waiting ends again today when Stephen Strasburg and the Nationals play the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

What once was lost has returned. The long exile of the national pastime, the best game, from Washington, D.C. is over. Even though the waiting ended eight years ago, Opening Day still feels new, like the rebirth of baseball in the nation’s capital all over again.

Now, that’s a joy worth repeating.

Have a wonderful 2012 season following the Washington Nationals with us here at District on Deck.

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