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Baseball's Back In D.C.

The nation's capitol welcomed the official return of major league baseball by cheering on President Bush as he threw the first pitch at the Washington Nationals' home opener.

With a

that sailed above a generous strike zone, Mr. Bush threw open the Washington Nationals' inaugural home game Thursday night, ending the city's baseball drought of more than three decades.

Mr. Bush emerged from the dugout in a red home-team jacket to mostly cheers, Mr. some boos and lots of camera flashes. Waving to the crowd, he walked straight to the mound and promptly launched a high ball toward home plate. Nationals catcher Brian Schneider reached up and snatched the ball cleanly, sparking more cheers.

Joe Grzenda, the last pitcher in the Washington Senators' final home game in 1971, provided the ball he had used in that final game.

The president walked back across the diamond to another round of cheers from fans packed into 46,000-seat RFK Stadium. He waved and smiled before disappearing into the dugout.

Mr. Bush watched the game from a box behind home plate with baseball commissioner Bud Selig, first lady Laura Bush, daughter Jenna and others.

Under a blue sky and mild temperatures, Mr. Bush executed the ceremonial first toss with the skill of a guy who knows baseball. He was a part-owner of the Texas Rangers before running for governor of Texas.

Mr. Bush practiced his wind-up in recent days, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, before traveling to Rome last week and most recently on Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, Bush told newspaper editors meeting in Washington: "I've got a decision to make today. Do I go with a fast ball or a slider?"

Mr. Bush's pitch came 95 years to the day that President William Howard Taft did the same at a game between the Senators and Athletics, the beginning of a tradition.

The Senators left for Texas in 1972, but baseball returned to the nation's capital with the home opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

From the chants of "Lets go, Nats!" at a VIP luncheon to the excitement in the eyes of returning old-timers, Washington, D.C., ushered in the new era of baseball with an all-day party.

In a city that went 12,250 days — since 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.

"I'm numb. I'm raking it all in," said Mickey Vernon, who turns 87 next week. "It's been a long while coming, but for those with patience, something good comes along," said Vernon, one of 10 former Washington Senators here as honored guests.

Needless to say, the players never got this kind of treatment in Montreal, but they also looked like a group that couldn't wait for the hype to die down.

"There's a lot of attention, a lot of stuff to do today," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said. "And we're just going to be happy to get on the field in front of some great fans."

There already have been numerous milestone dates in baseball's return to Washington, which had been without a team since the expansion Senators departed for Texas following the 1971 season. There was the relocation announcement on Sept. 29, followed by the opening of spring training and the first spring training game in February, an exhibition game against the New York Mets at RFK on April 3, and then the season opener at Philadelphia a day later.

But the last of the welcome-back parties was the biggest. Tickets were for the 46,000-seat RFK Stadium were hard to come by, even for some well-heeled Washingtonians. Some 95 minutes of pre-game ceremonies were scheduled before the game, including the presidential first pitch, a tradition that began exactly 95 years ago to the day when William Howard Taft tossed out a ball before a Senators-Athletics game on April 14, 1910.

The Nationals had the scoreboard ready: The name George W. Bush was written on the scoreboard with the "W" written in curly script, mimicking the design on the Nationals' hats.

So excited was the city that several local television stations originated their morning newscasts from the stadium Thursday. Jersey barriers were erected near the stadium, part of the extensive security measures taken before the president's arrival.

The Nationals are the last team to play a home game this season, which is probably for the best given the compressed schedule for renovating the stadium. Hundreds of extra chairs were being set up on the field in front of the stands late Wednesday, the sort of additional seating used for World Series games. Mowers trimmed the grass, and workmen were hoping to find a way to get rid of the faint white lines still visible from a Major League Soccer game last week.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the Nationals arrived as a first-place team, having won two out of three against the Atlanta Braves to improve to 5-4 in the NL East. 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 is 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."