Zimmerman caps memorable Nationals Park debut

WASHINGTON -- Life for a Washington major leaguer has changed a lot since the Frank Howard-Eddie Brinkman days, when you hung your street clothes on a hook and you were ecstatic about it. A locker was just a locker -- not so big a place that it warranted a second mortgage.

Today, your typical Washington Nationals player arrives at work to find high-speed Internet access and an iPod charging station at his locker stall. He can work out the kinks in a sauna, rehabilitate on an underwater treadmill, or soak in a hot or cold Jacuzzi. And everyone dresses at lockers of cherry wood, separated by overhead columns made of Louisville Sluggers. Talk about your subtle-yet-distinctive touches.

Best of all, the shindigs cost a mere $611 million -- or roughly half the price of the new Yankee Stadium.

"They got their money's worth here,'' said reliever Ray King. "As players, we really appreciate where we've come from to where we are. This stadium really gives the Washington Nationals a home.''

And as any architect, general manager or season-ticket holder will tell you, a good home is nothing without a solid foundation.

The Nationals' resident cornerstone goes by the name of Ryan Zimmerman. He played his college ball at the University of Virginia, he arrived as the fourth pick in the 2005 draft, and he's the best player on a franchise with lots of intriguing parts and a long-term horizon. Zimmerman is big yet Gold Glove-caliber agile in the field, possesses that elusively wholesome Boy Wonder glow, and seems built for moments when the emotions and excitement are ratcheted up a notch.

That was evident in the buzz that emanated from the stands as Zimmerman stepped to the plate with Washington and Atlanta tied 2-2 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday. A ripple built into a cheer, a cheer escalated to something more, and even the understated Zimmerman felt a slight chill up his spine.

"Yeah, you feel it a little bit,'' Zimmerman said. "I enjoy being in those situations, and I've been lucky enough to have a few hits in games like that. The fans are really knowledgeable in this city -- they know when you do well and when you do bad. It's nice to be that guy they want up there.''

Just as the crowd at Nationals Park sensed this game might drag on a while, Zimmerman brought the proceedings to an abrupt halt. He drove a 1-0 fastball from sidearmer Peter Moylan over the fence for his fourth career walk-off homer, and the Nationals beat the Braves 3-2 to put an exclamation point to a memorable evening in the nation's capital.

As ballpark debuts go, this one was pretty darned good. Washington manager Manny Acta observed that the end result "couldn't have been scripted any better,'' and commissioner Bud Selig, capping off a busy spring of gallivanting the globe, dropped by the press box and told reporters that Nationals Park is a "baseball cathedral.'' Any worries or concerns about Opening Night glitches were largely unfounded.

Nationals president Stan Kasten, who spent the evening kibitzing with reporters, roaming the park and mother-henning the operation, said concession lines were shorter than in Saturday night's exhibition game against Baltimore. Since the Nationals opened the gates more than four hours ahead of the first pitch, the overwhelming majority of people were also in their seats in plenty of time.

"I haven't heard anything but raves and euphoria,'' said Kasten. Jokingly, he added, "Maybe it's because it was cold and people were buying lots of beer.''

In reality, the move from RFK Stadium to their spiffy new 41,222-seat park is a huge step forward for the Nationals in their quest to be a perennial contender in the NL East. All that's left now is for the team to cover its bases through the draft, international scouting and trades.

"We take very seriously our responsibility to be a representative of the national pastime in the nation's capital,'' Kasten said. "We're going to be a marquee franchise, an important franchise for baseball, but we couldn't get there until we had a venue this good. Now we have to build a championship team to match a championship venue.''

Life in Washington brings a different brand of celebrity to the park, for sure. President George Bush, invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, dropped by the clubhouses before the game to pose for photos and chat with principals on both teams, and he impressed Acta and the Washington players with his congeniality and knowledge of baseball.

When Bush walked to the mound for his big moment, he was greeted by a mix of boos and cheers from the stands. The breakdown was roughly 50-50 -- or 51-49 if you happened to be pro-Surge.

The Nationals needed only one inning to be encouraged by the status of first baseman Nick Johnson in his recovery from a broken leg. In his first regular-season game since Sept. 23, 2006, Johnson doubled home a run in his first at-bat and came around to score on an Austin Kearns base hit. Time will tell, of course, but Johnson appears close to being back at top form.

Some other Nationals aren't so fortunate. Closer Chad Cordero was unavailable Sunday night because of right shoulder tendinitis that's expected to keep him out a few days, and Jon Rauch, his replacement, blew a save in the ninth. Then left fielder Elijah Dukes landed on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, and the Nationals filled his spot by recalling pitcher Chris Schroder from Triple-A Columbus. Willie Harris will get the bulk of the playing time in left while Dukes recovers.

There's something about him. We're starting to see greatness prevail.

--Dmitri Young, about teammate Ryan Zimmerman

Thanks to Zimmerman, the Nationals' overnight trip to Philadelphia was upbeat as could be. The record shows that Zimmerman hit a so-so .247 with runners in scoring position last season, but he's developing a reputation here that transcends stats. Teammate Dmitri Young was sufficiently confident in the dugout Sunday to predict Zimmerman's game-winning shot.

"There's something about him,'' Young said. "We're starting to see greatness prevail.''

After the game, Zimmerman traded a signed jersey for the home run ball, which he plans to either keep at his house or give to his parents as a memento.

The Nationals sure don't have any plans to trade Zimmerman. When asked if he might consider renaming the team's new ballpark "The House that Zim Built,'' Kasten smiled.

"I'm not ready to do that yet, but everything is a sponsorship deal,'' Kasten said. "It could be arranged for the right price.''

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.