Opening Day. Mama’s homemade apple pie, pickup trucks, and blue jeans just aren’t as American. It is a fresh start, suitably beginning in spring when flowers come back to life, birds start singing again, and teenagers everywhere attempt to start over on Spring break mishaps of years past. It is a new season, and any team has a shot at making it to October.
Joe Dimmagio once said “You always get a special kick on opening day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you're a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.” You can’t help but share Joltin’ Joe’s optimism, and maybe he was right. On March 30, 2008, something wonderful happened.
On a cool Sunday night the Big Leagues welcomed to the ranks of America’s baseball sanctuaries National’s Park. Within eye shot of the Washington Monument, the new field was christened by the home field Nationals and the Atlanta Braves, a momentous occasion located in the land of suits and snakes. Oh yes, it is still Washington and the capitol’s inhabitants welcomed the park in their own unique way.
George W. Bush, the same President of Texas Ranger fame took the mound to perform a less-acknowledged duty of our nation’s leader. Since President Taft began the tradition in 1910, the President has ceremoniously thrown out the first pitch of the season at a ballpark somewhere in America. It just so happened that this year baseball returned permanently to the land where laws are passed, so it was only suiting that Washington D.C. witness an early inauguration that is sure to be less controversial than that which will occur on January 20 of next year. But again, it is still Washington.
As the president held the white horse-hide, boos could be heard scattered across the stands of the infant stadium. Apparently, Washington did not get the memo that Opening Day is supposed to be a joyous occasion, but so goes the world of politics. Nobody can seem to let anything go anymore, and yet as Bush let go of that white sphere the crowd’s disapproval just seemed to blend in with the natural ebb and flow of the baseball world. Hostility and politics notwithstanding, the ball still hit the catcher’s mitt and baseball season had begun. Finally.
Both teams brought the house in the opener, the Braves brought pitcher Tim Hudson and some brand new navy road jerseys, the National’s offered pitcher Odalis Perez and an excited fan base. The first inning was less than spectacular for the Bravos as Hudson gave up two runs on three hits, but that was all he would give up through seventy-eight pitches and seven innings. From the second inning it was nothing but a pitching duel, except for a Chipper Jones home run in the top of the fourth inning to put the Braves within one run of tying the ballgame.
Fast forward to the top of the ninth inning and we are still looking at a two to one game in favor of the home-team Nationals, but that lead wouldn’t stand for much longer. Brave’s First Baseman Mark Teixeira came within a foot of sending a Jon Rauch pitch over the right field wall, giving the slugger a double and the Braves a shot at tying the ballgame. Martin Prado would enter the game to pinch-run for Teixeira and left-fielder Jeff Francouer would ground-out to push Prado to third. So to the plate walks catcher Brian McCann. Could he offer the base hit that would tie the game? Not quite.
Instead, Rauch would toss a wild pitch allowing Prado to sprint home for the tying run. McCann would then fly-out to left field to send the game tied at two-a-piece into the bottom of the ninth. But remember, this is Opening Day and something wonderful has to happen.
So now picture this: Braves’ pitcher Pete Moylan has worked the inning to two outs, nobody on base, in the brand new Washington National’s Ballpark, and the face of the National’s franchise, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, is walking to the plate. Writer Ernest Thayer once scripted a poem entitled “Casey at the Bat”, eerily similar to such a scenario. Only this time around, “Mudville” is Washington, and “Casey” would not strike out.
Something wonderful did happen that night in D.C. Ryan Zimmerman sent a walk-off home run over the center field wall, defeating the Braves but at the same time reminding the nation that what we love so much about Baseball is the effort. Appropriately enough that sentiment is encompassed within another Joe Dimmagio quote painted onto the wall leading from the National’s clubhouse to the dugout. It reads “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time, I owe him my best.”
For any kid, young or old, who happened to witness the spectacle in Washington the night of Opening Day 2008, that’s exactly what they got: the best.