Braves, Nats rub shoulders with Bush

Braves, Nats rub shoulders with Bush

WASHINGTON -- The Atlanta Braves were gathered in a corner of the clubhouse, assembled for a team photo.

They were told to be ready ahead of time, because their impending guest wouldn't have much time to hang around.

Then President George W. Bush strode into the room and took the picture, but he didn't go anywhere. He walked around the clubhouse, shaking every hand, signing every autograph and addressing some players by name.

"Not many people get to say they met the president of the United States and shook his hand," Braves reliever Chris Resop said. "He's a special human being and a very powerful man. It's an honor."

Resop got a hat signed, while other players asked the president to sign a jersey or pose for a photo. President Bush had a hefty entourage of about 15 Secret Service agents with him, but he moved around the room freely and greeted the players.

The president is a baseball fan who has been known to watch games by satellite on Air Force One, at the White House or wherever duty takes him. He was once the owner of the Texas Rangers, and, as a result, was able to speak knowledgeably with the players.

"He was very cordial. He knows a lot about the game," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "I know it was lots of fun for our team."

After chatting with the Braves, he headed into the Nationals' clubhouse to meet the team before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the new Nationals Park.

It was still a special event for the team, even though it was the president's fifth appearance at a Washington baseball game. The Nationals are 3-2 when he is in attendance.

"This was my third time, and this picture will go on the wall with the other two," Nationals reliever Ray King said. "He knew some of the guys and talked to them on a first-name basis. That makes us feel like he really understands what's going on out here at the Nationals."

Bush was on hand to inaugurate the new Nationals Park. There was a buzz in the air all night as players checked out the spacious clubhouses and fed off the energy of the sellout crowd. It was the 12th time a president had thrown out the first pitch for a home opener in Washington (the 48th time overall in D.C.), and Washington improved to 25-23 in those games with a presidential first pitch.

Commissioner Bud Selig was wrapping up a trip that took him to China and Japan and said he couldn't think of a better way of ending the trip than at the newest "cathedral of baseball."

On the field, the action was just as intense, with the Nationals winning, 3-2, on a walk-off home run from Ryan Zimmerman.

"It was a beautiful game," Cox said. "It just didn't go our way."

The players were focused not on the lines at Ben's Chili Bowl or the enormous video board, but rather on how the park would play.

Nationals players have received a few hints over the past few days as they've practiced fielding grounders from every possible angle.

The Braves didn't have as much time, but all complimented what they viewed as a "fair" park to both pitchers and hitters.

Center fielder Mark Kotsay said the team did both infield and outfield drills -- probably the only time the Braves will do that this season. He liked the field and clubhouse but took objection to the chain-link fence outfield that allows bullpen pitchers to watch the game.

"It's dangerous," he said. "You have a lot of risk for injury if you stick your cleat in them. A lot of stadiums have them, but it doesn't seem to be a good surface to put out there."

While most players focused on the festivities of the night, in the Nationals' clubhouse following the game, they had only a few minutes to enjoy the victory before heading off to another Opening Day in Philadelphia.

The president had a shorter drive home. He stayed around at the game, appearing on ESPN in the fourth inning and calling Chipper Jones' home run, the first in Nationals Park history, as it left his bat.

While Bush used to own the Rangers, he told the Nationals that he had no mixed loyalties Sunday night.

"He's a Texas guy," King said. "But right now, he's a D.C. guy for us."

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