Washington's field of dreams

Posted: Apr 18, 2005 12:00 AM

"Triumphant Return" was the headline both Washington newspapers chose last week to announce the rebirth of major league baseball in Washington, D.C.

It had been nearly 34 years, or as one sports writer figured it, 12,250 days since the last pitch was thrown on Sept. 30, 1971, at the same stadium, RFK. It was from this place that our "expansion team" was kidnapped and taken to Arlington, Texas, after a previous move by the original Washington Senators to Minnesota.

It seemed we baseball fans had been in a coma for more than three decades and, upon awakening, returned to the same once-modern stadium. Nothing much had changed since 1971, except the price of hot dogs ($4), beer ($6) and merchandise (up to $162 for a Washington Nationals jacket, tax included). My ticket cost $30. As I recall, it was $10 for a similar seat in 1971, but, by comparison, gasoline cost around 35 cents a gallon back then.

Two things touched me about this game (in addition to the 5-3 win by the transplanted Montreal Expos over the Arizona Diamondbacks). One was the "Field of Dreams" moment in which some of the old players - including 87-year-old Mickey Vernon, and my two favorite home run hitters, Frank Howard and Roy Sievers - took the field with other men from a bygone era. Players then were mostly loyal to their cities and played more for the love of the game than for money.

The old guys assumed positions they once played. Then, in a moment that resembled a Hollywood film, the younger Nationals players came onto the field and took their places next to the veteran Senators players, who then handed their gloves to today's team and slowly walked off the field to thunderous applause.

These were the heroes of my youth, whose batting averages and home run production I knew and whose exploits I listened to on the radio and watched on black-and-white and later color television.

The other touching moment was when I sensed the spirit of my late father. It was he who introduced me to baseball, first with games of catch in the back yard and later at the old Griffith Stadium, which was located in what is now a bad neighborhood, but then was a place you could park your car at night and not worry that it might be stolen or vandalized.

Knowing I would think of him, I took my own son and his 7-year-old son (and my daughter-in-law) with me. There have been four generations of Washington baseball fans on both sides, because my daughter-in-law recalls her father and grandfather taking her to Senators games.

This baseball game and the return of a team to Washington is a gift to a city that is too full of itself to care for much else. The "important people" had the prime seats, but I was content to sit among the average folks and ponder the beauty of the grass and even the dirt and the wonderful facelift that $18 million bought while the city awaits construction of its new baseball cathedral.

During baseball's absence from Washington, I had attended games in New York, Cincinnati, San Diego, Baltimore, Houston and Arlington, Texas. But none of them was as delicious, fulfilling and wonderfully nostalgic as opening night last Thursday in Washington. To top it off, the Nationals were in first place in the National League East.

One local sports journalist predicted the Nationals will draw 3 million fans their first year and may finish above .500. Only twice in 50 years has a Washington baseball team finished with a better than even record - in 1945, when the Senators had a .506 record and in 1969, when they won an impressive (for them) 86 games.

The Washington baseball tradition is being passed to a new generation. My 7-year-old grandson, Christian, took a bat his father bought him to school for "show and tell." He asked me how long it would be before we came back. "Soon," I said, "very soon."