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Nationals become reality with victory in opener

VIERA, Fla. (AP) -- After all the uncertainty, the flights to
"home" games and the dwindling support in their old city, the
Washington Nationals finally played a game.

And the debut -- Washington hadn't been represented on a major
league diamond since 1971 -- was a rousing success, in the stands
and on the scoreboard.

Playing their first game since leaving Montreal, the Nationals
opened spring training Wednesday with a 5-3 victory over the New
York Mets and new manager Willie Randolph.

Optimism was the order of the day, neatly symbolized by the
yellow smiley-face beach ball that fans kept afloat in the stands
behind home plate. And what wasn't there to smile about? The sun
was out, the home team played well -- and a win is a win, after all,
spring training or not.

"You come out every year with new life," outfielder Brad
Wilkerson said. "Everyone's 0-0, trying to get that championship
and win your division. The crowd was really good today, and,
hopefully, we can just keep improving and bring some wins."

After three years in limbo as the Montreal Expos, the team
finally took to the field wearing home white uniforms with
"Nationals" in red and gold across the chests and a curly white
"W" on their hats reminiscent of the old Senators' caps.

"It did feel good once I put it on," second baseman Jose Vidro
said. "And when I went out there, the people were cheering for us
once the game started."

The starters sprinted out on the field at 1:02 p.m., and a
minute later came another first in Nationals history, albeit a tad
more dubious: the debut of a team theme song, "We Are the
Washington Nationals," which sounded something like AC/DC. Blessid
Union of Souls recorded the song and offered it to general manager
Jim Bowden.

"I was wondering, 'What's going on?' It was like head-banging,
then it said 'Nationals' and it was pretty cool," Wilkerson said.
"It's pretty cool to have your own song. It was pretty upbeat. We
didn't have a song in Montreal."

There was a lot the team didn't have in its previous home,
including stability, much money to spend on top players and -- last
season, anyway -- a ton of victories.

There were a lot of positive signs Wednesday.

Starter Tony Armas Jr., who missed most of the past two seasons
after major shoulder surgery, worked two hitless innings with two
strikeouts. He threw 28 pitches and pronounced himself
"pain-free."

The three key new position players -- Cristian Guzman, Vinny
Castilla and Jose Guillen -- each got a hit. Vidro, who missed the
final six weeks last season to have right knee surgery, singled and
scored a run.

"It was special because of the situation. We're all aware of
it. You always try to keep your perspective that it's an exhibition
game," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. "It's the next
step, getting a little closer to the real thing, and you do get
excited about that. You can't get too up, though."

Tell that to the fans.

An announced sellout of 7,558 began arriving more than five
hours before game time, hoping for a photo, autograph -- or just a
glimpse of a player. The line at the stadium gates was several
dozen deep when they opened 1½ hours before the first pitch.

"I've been here since 8 a.m. -- I don't want to miss anything,"
said Stephen Klatsky of Alexandria, Va., wearing a red Nationals
pullover and gingerly holding a crisp white ball with fresh
autographs.

"I've lived in the D.C. area since 1974, and I've been waiting
for baseball ever since then. I'm probably (Orioles owner) Peter
Angelos' nightmare. I went to 40 games a year in Baltimore, and now
I won't need to go there for baseball."

During the second inning, the line of cars backed up on the
one-lane road beyond left field stretched for at least half a mile,
close to the nearby field where horses can be seen grazing.

Even the Mets were impressed by the turnout.

"It was pretty cool. It's not often that the first game of
spring training is nationally televised. I'm happy for those
guys," said New York starter Tom Glavine, who allowed two hits in
two scoreless innings.

Chad Cordero struck out the side in the ninth, putting the
Nationals' first victory in the books. That was 2 hours, 33 minutes
after the first pitch: a ball, outside, at 1:06 p.m.

Catcher Brian Schneider flipped the memento to the Nationals'
dugout, perhaps mindful of the presence of new Mets first baseman
Doug Mientkiewicz, who got in a spat with the Red Sox about the
ball from the last out of the World Series.

"It's the first spring training pitch. I hope I catch the first
pitch" of the regular season, Schneider said. "I hope it's not
hit anywhere."

For the record, other firsts in Nationals history:

-- The first hit came when Guzman -- the free-agent shortstop from
the Twins -- lined a 1-0 pitch up the middle. Alas, the team's first
double play followed shortly.

-- The team's first run came on Guillen's two-run homer to
straightaway center in the fourth, tying the score at 2.

-- The first error was by pitcher Mike Hinckley, during a two-run
Mets fourth.

That might have been the sort of miscue expected from the old
Expos, who went 67-95 last season while traveling to Puerto Rico
for some games.

But that's all in the past. As Bowden put it: "We're
undefeated. We've never lost a game, so that's exciting."

Game notes
T.J. Tucker was credited with the win. ... Mets Class-A
pitching coach Rick Mahler, who won 96 games during a 13-year
career spent mostly with the Atlanta Braves, died Wednesday of a
heart attack in Jupiter, Fla. He was 51.