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Linking city's past to present

You could tell the starting nine of the Washington Nationals sensed they were a part of something special. Just before the game, the players came out to their positions and took gloves from members of the old Senators team on hand for the Nats' historic home opener at RFK Stadium. There was 6-foot-7 Frank Howard, towering over 5-10 Brad Wilkerson, reaching down and patting him on the shoulder as he handed the glove to the Nationals' left fielder. There was Mickey Vernon, 86, hunched over but still full of baseball heart, spending several minutes talking to Nick Johnson as the exchange took place at first base. Whatever the two-time former batting champion told Johnson must have been wise: Johnson recorded the Nationals' first hit at RFK, a first-inning single to left. Johnson soon would have company. More hits followed, nine in all for the Nationals. One in particular, a two-run home run by Vinny Castilla, stood out: Castilla's shot gave Washington a 5-3 victory over Arizona and sole possession of first place in the National League East. Even the cool Livan Hernandez gave Dick Bosman a warm pat on the back as he took the glove from the former Senators pitcher on the mound. Wilkerson was born in Daviess, Ky., in 1977. Johnson was born in Sacramento, Calif., in 1978. Hernandez was born in another world - Cuba - in 1975. What should the Washington Senators mean to any of these guys? These weren't fans, though, or sportswriters telling these players who called two countries - Canada and Puerto Rico - home for the past two seasons that the return of baseball to Washington meant something. Oh, the players have said all the right things about realizing what it means and all that. But until last night, when nine former Washington Senators took the positions they used to play - with the gloves that the Nationals would use to play baseball again in Washington - it never truly seemed to connect. They were ballplayers, men who had played the same game, and they shared that brotherhood. No matter how the circumstances surrounding the game - the salaries, the travel, the steroids - have changed, the hopes and fears on the field are the same, from Walter Johnson to Tomo Ohka. They were passing on the tools of the trade, connecting generations of players, though an entire generation of Washington baseball was lost when the Senators left after the 1971 season. That's what made last night so special - connections. This was not an expansion city like Denver or Miami getting baseball for the first time. And it wasn't simply the return of baseball, such as in Milwaukee, when the Braves left in 1966 and the Milwaukee Brewers were born out of the bankrupt Seattle Pilots in 1970. That was a pimple compared to Washington's heartache. No city in modern sports history has gone 34 years in between teams. You would think after 10 years, 20 years - and particularly with a team 35 miles north of here that had some good moments over the last 34 years - that the desire would disappear. At some point, it would have been perfectly reasonable for those who missed the game here to simply say, that's enough. It's gone, it's never coming back, so let's move on. That never happened. There was a connection that was missing, and last night 45,000 fans at RFK and nine Washington Nationals on the field reached back, tied the past to the present and created a scene to be remembered in the future.

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