Sunday, March 25, 2007

One Special Night (And I Almost Missed It)




Pope John Paul II had just passed away. The Vatican was anticipating going into a closed session to elect a new Pope. The entire world was watching, and every media organization in the world wanted to be there. And, I was at the top of The "GO" List. The Date-April 2nd, 2005, two days before Our Washington Nationals played their very first regular season game in the History of the Franchise. 12 days before the very first "HOME" game in 34 years in our Nation's Capital.

In television news, The "GO" List is the rotating schedule of cameraman/editors that determines whose turn is up to take the next travel assignment. Once you go on a travel trip (no matter how near or far) you move to the bottom and slowly work your way back to the top as road assignments are handed out. The list makes sure no one is left out, of an out of town trip. Sometimes you win (International Assignment), sometimes you lose (The Meadowlands). Those are the breaks, and you live with it.

When Pope John Paul II passed, our network happened to already have a crew in London, so they were dispatched immediately to Rome. But, as most people well remember, the entire world congregated on the city. People literally living, eating and "relieving" themselves on the ancient streets of Rome and Vatican City. Millions made the pilgrimage, it was getting out of control, very quickly. And, I was needed.

Having waited my entire Adult Life for Major League Baseball to return to Washington, DC, I was torn, worried and downright uneasy about taking a TRIP TO ROME!! (How JADED DOES THAT SOUND!!). I wanted to go badly, but I really didn't wish to miss that very first game on April 14th, against The Arizona Diamondbacks. The Rome Trip was open ended, there was no telling when I would return to The United States.



On Monday, April 4th, I was asked to make a final decision--leave on April 5th and not return for two weeks. Or, pass on the trip and move back one spot on The "GO" List. The African Queen and I were already credentialed for The Nationals very first game of the season--against The Phillies in Philadelphia. My Canadian Network at one time broadcast the Montreal Expos games across Canada. The News Desk wanted some sound from Montreal's former players. That historic very first game of Our Washington Nationals was not in jeopardy for me. But, the RFK Stadium Opener truly was.



Holding my breath, biting my tongue--I decided to go to Rome. And, I was crushed. Sohna understood, although she was shocked. She told me she would attend the Home Opener, and take a relative along on April 14th. They would do their very best to represent me. Off I went to Rome (it was the correct decision) and experienced one of the most AMAZING TIMES of my television news career. People were EVERYWHERE, the sorrow and remembrance of a beloved man--Pope John Paul II was in FULL FORCE. My time covering his death and funeral, one of the most MEMORABLE MOMENTS of my journalism career.

All the work, little sleep and the constant battling to move about Vatican City and Rome took its toll on myself and Our Washington Bureau Chief. On Wednesday, April 13th, The News Desk flew in a fresh crew, and we were STUNNINGLY SENT HOME!! to Washington. The New Crew would cover the Conclave (The New Pope Vote). My hope was still alive. I could make Opening Night at RFK Stadium, if all the flight plans worked.

And, they did. We arrived at Dulles International Airport at 9AM on April 14th, 2005. A mere 10 Hours until game time, six hours until Lot 8 at RFK Stadium opened. The African Queen and I were going to make it--together!! Despite some serious Jet lag, I was stoked!! Major League Baseball was returning to my HOMETOWN!!



At that point in Our Nationals young history I was not the King of Nats Gear, Uniforms and Memorabilia I have become. For The Opener, I wore my vintage Original Style Washington Senators Red Curly "W" Cap. That "W" is flatter, wider and not tilted like the Nationals Modified Curly "W". My grey Washington Senators Sweatshirt and Brand New Red Nationals Field Jacket. The Jacket the only Nationals item I owned leading up to April 14th. The African Queen had no Nats Stuff, at that time. She wasn't even sure if she wanted to partake in so many Nationals Games for 2005. Sohna has always supported my desires, but attending possibly 81 baseball games a little over the top. The Queen was wary about baseball throughout the spring and summer. She really didn't know what to expect, thinking that every single game was basically the same. Fortunately, she has become a fan. A Fan of Baseball, Our Washington Nationals, and All OUR FRIENDS in Section 320 & Throughout RFK Stadium. As I have stated many times previously, you may have NO IDEA how lucky I am to be with The African Queen. Not many would put up with my passion, at the extent I go.

Knowing The President Of The United States was attending tonights game and throwing out the first ball, we knew, we had to leave as early as possible. At 2:15PM, we drove off to the game. Many others had the same plan. At 2:45PM, we were a good 100 cars in line, backed up on the access road from SE/SW Freeway to Lot 8. But, once the gates opened, there was clear sailing. The African Queen set up a picnic. We TAILGATED IN LOT 8, bringing back some long lost memories of The Washington Redskins in this very same parking lot. It was fun. Thousands were enjoying the same experience. Many dressed in Nats Red and Nats Blue. A festive atmosphere was at hand. And those that didn't have any new Nats Gear, they could just walk over to a mobile gift trailer and buy to their hearts content. Sohna and I bought Opening Night Programs, Pins and Pennants, before we even set foot in the stadium. Which was a good idea, as we just placed the items in the trunk of the car for safekeeping. No use getting everything destroyed stashing them under the game seats. We laughed at the folks buying 10-20 Gold Leaf Game Souvenir Programs. The eBay clowns were on the loose. The Hard Sell was on, by The Nationals Owners, MLB--EVERYTHING WAS CONSIDERED A COLLECTIBLE on this night.

The Gates were scheduled to open at 5PM. Uniformed Secret Service was set up at every stadium entrance. Walking through a magnetometer and having all your items checked, mandatory tonight with George W. Bush in attendance. As Sohna and I entered the stadium, A Secret Service Officer noticed my media credentials around my neck. Especially, My "White House" Media Credential. He smiled, knowingly, commenting "So, you are one of the lucky few that actually get to enjoy this tonight?" Immediately, I replied: "You better believe it. I've waited 34 years for this moment." Smiling, The Officer waved us on to The Ticket Takers.

Once inside the stadium, we headed to our seats. The Nationals were finishing up Batting Practice. Fans young and old were oogling over the site of baseball in DC. Many youngsters running down to the sidelines to catch a closer glimpse of the players, possibly snare an autograph. The African Queen and I arrived in Section 320. On this night, Section 320 was just a place to sit, watch baseball--nothing more. We knew NO ONE, not a single person sitting around us.





MickNats had introduced himself to us during the March 31st Exhibition Game against the Mets two weeks earlier. But, we didn't quite have his name right. For the first two weeks of the 2005 season, Sohna and I called him "NICK". Mick finally corrected me by the end of that first homestand.

The Now Infamous "NOISE BOYS"--SeyHeyKlib, NatsDelNegro (Now going by the name "BangTheDrumNatly"--must be a "PRINCE" thing), RallyTimeRichard, CanadaJim and KentuckyRob were nowhere near us that night. They had ransomed off their Opening Night Section 320 Seats for The Big Bucks and were sitting in the Upper Deck behind the first base dugout. We never even met them until later in the Diamondbacks/Marlins & Braves series over the following six days. Unquestionably, a match made in heaven. Section 320 would be NOTHING without the "Noise Boys".

Andy and his Father, Jim, took their rightful place that night. When Andy was a child, growing up in Northern Virginia, his Dad was a Washington Senators Season Ticket Holder. Jim's Senators Tickets were in Section 320, row 2, Seats 16 & 17. For Baseball returning to Washington, Adult Andy honored his now retired Father, with Season Tickets--In Section 320, Row 2, Seats 16 & 17, directly in front of Mary and MickNats. Andy and Jim are very special to Section 320. They are an intricate part to the fabulous woven texture of the finest place to sit and watch a game at RFK Stadium--Section 320. Andy & Jim share their tickets with SenatorNat--The King Of Wit!! SenatorNat knows EVERYBODY IN DC!! I mean EVERYBODY!!

To think back to that day--WE DIDN'T EVEN KNOW SCREECH!! In fact, Screech wasn't even BORN YET!! Screech'sBestFriend was over one year away from existence. The Nats320 Blog was not even a thought. How times have changed!!



The nights excitement then continued to build as former Washington Senators Players were introduced, and cheered for. These aging veterans, walked and waddled out to their former positions. But, nothing TRILLED ME MORE!! than Charlie Brotman's introduction of MY FAVORITE PLAYER OF ALL TIME!!--Frank Howard. As "Hondo" slowly jogged/walked out to left field wearing a Red Nationals Field Jacket, I could not hold back the tears any longer. My watering eyes sending tearful streams down my cheeks. The African Queen holding me tightly. A lifetime of childhood memories returned, a GREAT JOY FILLED MY BODY. Many Scientific Experts say, when your final moments on this earth come, your lifetime passes before you in an instant. I didn't pass away on April 14, 2005, but my childhood with My Washington Senators flashed before my eyes. I relived every single moment from my youth watching Senators Baseball at DC, now RFK Stadium. It was a fabulous moment in time. A JOYFUL MOMENT, MANY WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND.

As I recovered from that moment, the players were introduced, lining up along the baselines. And, except for Nationals Manager, Frank Robinson, many fans had NO IDEA who the majority of Washington's players were. A Gigantic American Flag was unfurled across the outfield, The Color Guard presented the Flags. The National Anthem sung, accompanied by an Honorary Military Fly By of F-16's in the 4 plane, missing man formation. The crowd roared its approval.



It was nearly Game Time, first pitch just moments away. But something special had yet to take place. For years, Washington, DC had the honor of having The President of The United States throw out the First Pitch of any baseball season. A Tradition that goes all the way back to President Taft. Sure, over the past 34 years, various Presidents had thrown out first pitches to start the seasons, in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Anaheim. You name the city, it probably happened. But, there is nothing like The First Pitch being thrown out by The President in THE MOST IMPORTANT CITY IN OUR WORLD. I don't care what side of the political aisle you sit on, it should not matter. The President of The United States should ALWAYS throw out THE FIRST PITCH at EACH AND EVERY Washington Nationals Opener. This should NEVER BE QUESTIONED!

George W. Bush, The 43rd President of The United States, was introduced and tossed a high outside pitch to Nationals Catcher Brian Schneider. The CROWED ROARED! And, rightfully so. As I said to The African Queen, moments after the pitch: "This may be the only time I clap for that man, in history." We laughed, to no end.


Our Washington Nationals, dressed in Home Whites, Red Trim, Red Curly "W" cap jogged onto the field, led by Jose Vidro. Tonight's starter, Livan Hernandez, lumbered to the mound to warm up. The anticipation GREAT!! Everybody in attendance was standing. The Diamondbacks Craig Counsell stepped into the left handed batters box, ready to make baseball history. Home Plate Umpire, Jim Joyce pointed at Livan. The Game was ON!! Hernandez wheeled--10,000 flashbulbs went off in unison--and threw a CALLED FIRST STRIKE!! The ROAR was nearly deafening.

Baseball was back after being missed for far too long. The crowd settled in for an eventful evening.


Hernandez was at his masterful junk pitching best, keeping the Arizona Hitters off balance. Our Nationals would score their first runs at RFK on a triple down the right field line by Vinny Castilla, scoring Vidro and Jose Guillen in the 4th. Schneider followed with a Sacrifice Fly scoring Vinny and it was 3-0 after 4 innings. It was at this time, the portable stands along the 3rd baseline began to shake with the jumping up and down of the fans stacked in the stands. Everyone took notice of the bobbing heads. Everyone enjoying the moments. Later, in the sixth, Vinny Castilla would add to his 3 hit, 4 RBI memorable night with a 2 run shot over the left field wall to make the score 5-0. And RFK STADIUM BEGAN TO SHAKE. Shake like the Glory Days of The Washington Redskins!! The fun was on. The African Queen and I enjoying every single second of it. The crowd was delirious. In the TV Booth, Mel Proctor was worrying the Press Box was going to fall from its perched position behind home plate. The Press Box was shaking like an earthquake was hitting. Anyone that had spent time at RFK Stadium already knew. RFK STADIUM HAS A LIFE OF ITS OWN. A Great Giant had REAWAKEN!!

Livan would tire late and give up a 2 run Homer to Chad Tracey in the 9th, getting the festive crowd nervous for the first time tonight. But, "The Chief" Chad Cordero would come on to perform his HIGH WIRE ACT. With 2 outs, Cordero would give up a single to Quinten McCracken. Pinch Hitter Tony Clark stepped to the plate. And LAUNCH A DEEP DRIVE TO CENTERFIELD. But, this was before every Nats Fans became accustomed to The VAST WASTELAND OF CENTERFIELD AT RFK. Everyone jumped out of their seats, thinking a two run homer had just tied the game. But, Ryan Church settled in under the ball for the final out. BANG ZOOM WENT THE FIREWORKS!! The First Curly "W" at RFK was in the books. (Although Radio Broadcaster Charlies Slowes did not start using those phrases until later in the season).


I was exhausted, Jetlagged, up for over 48 hours, but adrenaline still pumping--Baseball had returned to Washington. A Day I thought, many times, would never come, had actually happened. The world was right again, to me. Since that night, I have continued to return to RFK at every chance. I was addicted to Our Washington Nationals. Fortunately, The African Queen sharing my love.

Since April 14, 2005, Sohna and I have experienced a wealth of enjoyable and satisfying moments at RFK Stadium, watching Our Washington Nationals. But, even more importantly, we have made friends that share our joy. Friendships that will last a lifetime. As we head to the final season of baseball at RFK STADIUM, there is no doubt about one thing. That Night Major League Baseball Returned to its rightful home in Washington, April 14th, 2005--WAS ONE SPECIAL NIGHT!

And, I ALMOST MISSED IT!!

4 comments:

mike edgar said...

SBF,

Thanks for your account of that home opener in 2005. I was fortunate enough to have been one of the lucky 45,000 who were able to attend that game. It goes down as the most memorable sporting experiences of my life. When I think about that game, my strongest memories are President Bush's pitch, and Livan's first pitch, when you could see all of the camera flashes going off. We were sitting out in centerfield for that game, so we had a great view of the stadium around the infield, so those flashes looked like a true Disney moment. It was truly a great night. I will cherish every game I attend at RFK this season, because as great as the new stadium is likely to be, it won't be RFK.

Bang the Drum Natly said...

Howdy SBF,

Great post as usual!

My favorite Opening Day moment by far was the "changing of the guard," as I realized I was watching the team my dad had cheered on in his younger years, pass the torch on to the team that I was and am proud to cheer on myself! It was a truly special moment.

I fully agree with M. Edgar's comments, I love RFK, it reminds me of my childhood when my dad would take me to (don't hate me for this) O's games at Memorial Stadium. Something about the gum-pockmarked walkways, the everpresent smell of that indecipherable something that ain't exactly pleasant, but you get used to and suddenly find yourself appreciating because it simply means BALLGAME, and the austere, unadorned, no-frills concrete surroundings, I have a soft spot in my heart for it, and will most dfeinitely miss it when the new digs open.

By the way, I have to chime in with 2 points: my new moniker is simply a bastardization of the '73 baseball movie, not really a "Prince thing," (not even really sure what that means!) and as I'm a drummer, figured it was an appropriate name; and second, we didn't sit in 320 that night because we had 6 in our group for 4 seats, so we wanted to make sure we were all there without any seat-switching complications (though for the record we did pull a nice price, as I fuzzily recall! ;)

Anyway, thanks again for the great post, it most definitely brought me right back to that night!!!

Cheers

SenatorNat said...

If I know EVERYONE in D.C., how come I cannot get a parking ticket fixed?

This is a keeper - the Pope's death, Screech's Best Friend BEFORE THERE WAS A SCREECH, and a man who lost the presidency to recent Academy Award winner throwing out the first ball.

You have done yourself proud indeed, SBF. Now - about that parking ticket...

Trust in Vinnie C. - All Good.

benji said...

I was actully at the first game, if you want to call it that, at rfk. An expidtion game between the Nats and Mets. HAve that ticket framed
The first ever Nats game.
By any chance did you get a program from that game.
I was tring to find the orginal 40 man roster of the nats