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Acta honored to catch president's pitch

Acta honored to catch president's pitch

WASHINGTON -- Nationals manager Manny Acta has caught several ceremonial first pitches before, but this one was special. He was reminded of that before he even left home on Sunday morning.

"My wife told me, 'Make sure you don't drop the ball,'" Acta said.

He didn't, receiving a high fastball from President George W. Bush to inaugurate a new season of baseball in the United States and a new era in Washington, D.C.

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Nationals Park opened its doors on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET, and the buzz started shortly thereafter. A capacity crowd of 41,888 found their seats long before the evening's festivities began.

Hall of Fame pitcher and Nationals TV announcer Don Sutton took the microphone at 7:48 p.m. to emcee the ceremonies.

He was preceded by a video montage showing the history of baseball in Washington that ended with a time-lapse montage of Nationals Park being built.

"Welcome to Opening Day," Sutton said. "We think this is the first of what is going to be a long list of historical events in this ballpark."

That was followed by introductions of the Atlanta Braves, who were sporting new alternate uniforms for the game -- the first change to their road jerseys in 21 years.

Following the Braves' introductions, two giant American flags were unfurled in the outfield and remained for the rest of the ceremonies.

That was followed by the Nationals' introductions, and they cleared the bench, bringing out everybody on the team, including all of the coaches and members of the training staff. Particularly loud ovations went to Dmitri Young, Ryan Zimmerman and Acta.

Sutton left the stage after the introductions as District native Denyce Graves gave her rendition of the national anthem.

That was followed by the evening's main event, the president of the United States.

President Bush was escorted onto the field by Nationals principal owner Ted Lerner and Zimmerman, the club's third baseman. The president walked to the mound by himself to a crowd that offered a vocal referendum, a mix of boos and cheers that created the night's largest noise as the two groups competed for aural dominance.

After throwing his pitch, the president was escorted off the field. In the dugout, he flipped the ball to Nationals president Stan Kasten, who was going to have it authenticated and placed in the stadium's President's Club.

D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty called out "Play ball," and after a television break, the teams did exactly that. Nick Johnson said that any time a team gets to meet the president, it's a special night.

"We got to see him in 2005 at the [Washington Nationals] opener," he said. "It's pretty cool."

Acta agreed, saying that he had seen Bush once at Triple-A New Orleans, but he never interacted with him like he did on Sunday. Of course, Acta also hadn't had the pressure of being asked to catch a pitch from the commander in chief in front of a worldwide audience. He deflected the nerves with humor.

"If I can't get to it, it's not on me," Acta said.

Michael Phillips is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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