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03/31/08 12:30 AM ET

Nationals find identity with new park

Franchise's introduction to nation's capital complete at last

WASHINGTON -- From the upper levels of new Nationals Park, you can see the dome of the U.S. Capitol. And the dome, set against the night sky, is a truly majestic sight, a symbol of the promise of the American republic.

That is a one-of-a-kind reference point for a ballpark, for a team, for a franchise -- for a sport, for that matter. All things taken together, it became vividly clear on Sunday night that the Washington Nationals now have a home that is worth calling a home.

It is true that baseball officially returned to our nation's capital in 2005 after a 34-year absence. But you could readily make the argument that the real homecoming was on Sunday night, with the opening of Nationals Park.

When the Nationals first surfaced here, their home was Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, which long ago had been considered too decrepit for residence by its previous National Football League tenant. RFK was not suitable even as a stopgap solution; it was to Major League ballparks what the Bates Motel was to quality lodging. But better baseball than no baseball.

You walk in the new place, though, and you stop thinking of the Nationals as transients just in from an unsuccessful run in Montreal, and you start thinking of them as solid citizens, someone around whom you could build a Major League neighborhood.

This is a practical, functional ballpark. Some of the new-as-old generation of ballparks have gone over the line in search of charming and have occasionally devolved into contrived and cutesy-pooh. Not this one.

Throwing in a jog in the right-center-field fence that was borrowed from old Griffith Stadium is legitimate. It's a tribute, it's history, it's OK. For the most part, Nationals Park eschews the offbeat in favor of the fan-friendly. The concourses are wide. Walking up the exterior ramps, the vistas of the Anacostia River waterfront are pleasing. The overall effect, from architecture to ambiance to function, is simply overwhelmingly pleasant.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, after taking an extremely upbeat tour of the grounds, said: "This is a fantastic facility. The park is extraordinary."

The Commissioner at one point referred to the park as a "cathedral." Since getting new ballparks built over strenuous political objections has been a hallmark of his tenure in office, Selig may be allowed some poetic license. If this park has to represent a religious building, it could happily qualify as a nice, sturdy Presbyterian church.

The presentation of the new park was done in first-class fashion. Don Sutton -- Hall of Fame pitcher, now Nationals broadcaster -- was the master of ceremonies for the opening. Sutton is a perennial class act, and here he was a presence fully worthy of the task at hand. He did not need the formal attire to be classy, but the tuxedo was a reasonable nod to the occasion.

President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch. His greeting from the capacity crowd of 39,389 was, of course, both loud and distinctly mixed. But his first pitch was well-received, being solidly in the region of the strike zone and having some zip to it.

The question for the remainder of the evening was whether the on-field Nationals would rise to the level of their new surroundings. Had they played at the level of their surroundings in RFK, they would have been the 1962 New York Mets.

But this is the other end of the spectrum. The new ballpark gives the Washington franchise the chance to compete through increased revenues and at least the potential for a larger and happier fan base. At some point, the franchise has to return the favor by fielding a team that is more than simply competitive.

On Sunday night, the signs were all good. For those who chuckled at the concept of Odalis Perez as the Opening Night starter, there was nothing particularly humorous about his work against the Atlanta Braves. Perez limited the Braves to one run over five innings and left in a position to be the winning pitcher. It looked like a possible first act in a career revival.

However, the Nationals' on-field margin for error is small. With a 2-1 lead going to the ninth and closer Chad Cordero out for the moment with right shoulder tendinitis, a double off reliever Jon Rauch, a groundout and a subsequent passed ball tied the game at 2.

But all this did was set the stage for the kind of climax that this sort of evening deserved. The necessary happy ending was supplied in the ninth by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's two-out walk-off home run.

The patrons of the Nationals streamed out of new Nationals Park with the satisfaction and the promise that a truly heartwarming Opening Night could bring. The chill of the March night was still present, but so what?

So what we had here was a 1-0 record for the home team. And we had a first-class facility, set apart from all others by virtue of its location and by virtue of the fact that unlike all other American cities, all aspects of this one seem to belong to all of us.

"We're back where we belong," Selig said. "We're back in a baseball community."

At first hearing, those words might have seemed more appropriate for the 2005 return of baseball to this city. On reflection, though, the return was not complete until now, with the opening of Nationals Park and the promise of both baseball and better days for the Washington baseball public.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.