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Nationals Park set for historic debut

Nationals Park set for historic debut

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Another Opening Night, another bow for The Show?

Yes, with profound apologies to Ethel Merman, who could belt them as well as Ryan Howard, the National Pastime becomes quite literal Sunday night in Washington, D.C.

The Nationals, hosting the Atlanta Braves, in the nationally televised (ESPN) season opener. In Nationals Park, the new sporting centerpiece of the nation's capital. OK, also officially the season's first National League game -- a few days after Boston and Oakland had popped the first cork on the championship season.

But this is the feel-it-for-real deal, with the pomp and circumstances to match.

Starting with the first pitch being delivered by that far-right-hander, President George W. Bush.

"That will be cool," said Atlanta outfielder Matt Diaz. "I voted for him twice, and I'd vote for him again, if I could."

New seasons are all about being born again, and speaking of rebirths, left-hander Odalis Perez draws the honor of delivering the "second" pitch.

The 30-year-old, originally a Brave and last season in Kansas City, wasn't even signed by the Nats to a Minor League contract until Feb. 19 -- after Spring Training had already begun. Now here he is taking the ball on a historic Opening Night.

"That's history, to be the first guy to pitch at the stadium," Perez said. "It's a great feeling for me to be able to throw the first pitch.

"I was just trying to make the team," Perez added, "and [being the Opening Night starter] never crossed my mind. Now I'm getting this opportunity that a lot of people wanted."

Since the Braves don't have a pitcher on their roster named Potomac, Tim Hudson will start, the fifth Opening Day assignment of his career.

"Pitching any Opening Day is special for anybody," said Hudson, who pitched a 1-0 gem against Seattle to open the 2003 season for Oakland, but has no-decisions in his other Opening Day starts. "Being in the nation's capital with a new stadium, there's a lot of excitement there.

"You can always say you're the first team to play there and I can say I was one of the first pitchers to throw some pitches in the stadium."

Opening Day
Countdown to Opening Day
•   March 23: Turnaround tales to be told
•   March 23: Rule 5 decisions loom
•   March 24: Free agents on the spot
•   March 25: Breakout players in 2008
•   March 25: Comeback candidates
•   March 26: Top storylines for '08
•   March 26: Top AL rookie candidates
•   March 26: Top NL rookie candidates
•   March 27: AL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: NL Cy Young candidates
•   March 27: Breaking down '08 slate
•   March 27: Century since Cubs' title
•   March 28: Top AL MVP candidates
•   March 28: Top NL MVP candidates
•   March 29: Changing of guard at short
•   March 30: Predictions for '08
•   March 30: '08 milestones
•   March 30: Season preview

Atlanta manager Bobby Cox is a little leery about playing for keeps in a place his men will not have seen until a few hours before the opening pitch. The Braves do plan to begin batting practice on Sunday 45 minutes earlier than usual -- just to get a little feel of the place.

"It will be rough," Cox said, "but it's just something you have to deal with. It will still be fun to be in that setting."

Not that Manny Acta's Nationals will have a home-field advantage -- unless you consider a sneak peak any kind of an edge.

"It's very exciting," Acta said in Florida, before getting his first actual look at Nationals Park. "All we have seen are all the pictures and the promos and all that. I can't wait to get in that new stadium and learn our way around it."

"I can't wait to play there," said Chad Cordero, Washington's closer. "I have been excited by the thought since they dug the ground."

The Nationals hurried north from their Grapefruit League finale on Thursday and headed directly to the Capitol Riverfront to take a quick tour of their new home for 81 nights and days.

Wide eyes and slackened jaws ensued.

"This is absolutely incredible," first baseman Dmitri Young said. "This is everything you want out of a new stadium. I'm in awe."

The expansive and oval-shaped -- White House ... Oval Office ... get it? -- clubhouse took away the breath of catcher Paul LoDuca, who called it "absolutely gorgeous. This room here is bigger than a lot of these guys' houses. You can't get any better than this."

Bats and gloves were to follow on Friday, when the Nationals were to go through the paces of their first Nationals Park workout. On Saturday, the Nats get an even more tangible sense of the place in a final exhibition tuneup against their Baltimore Orioles neighbors.

The new 41,888-seat ballpark on South Capitol Street will be not only the setting, but part of the show for the opening of Washington's 75th baseball season -- the fourth in the NL, following two AL incarnations (1901-60 with what now are the Twins, and 1961-71 with what became the Rangers).

Fans making their way from the Navy Yard Metro Station to the park will stroll through a veritable street fair of Dixieland music (Sheiks of Dixie), barbershop quartet harmonies (The Ringers), face-painters, balloon artists and stilt-walkers, and receive lanyards and rally towels as they enter the house.

Inside, their eyes will be first drawn to the 102-foot-by-47-foot High Definition video board.

Pre-game festivities will feature native Washingtonian Denyce Graves performing the National Anthem, punctuated by the flyover of four F-16 bombers from the 121st Fighter Squadron of the D.C. Air National Guard.

Then President Bush will hop out of the Nationals dugout, jog out to the middle of the diamond, and pop the season's reveille into the mitt of the Nats' manager, expected to form his batterymate.

The First Fan, and the First Acta.

Many more acts to follow.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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