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Amid loss, Teddy stands out

Let's get the good about the Washington Nationals' Opening Day up front and out of the way. It was a beautiful day at RFK Stadium yesterday, sunny and 76 degrees at game time. A great, enthusiastic crowd of more than 40,000 fans showed up to cheer for a team some would pick to finish last in the Carolina League, let alone the National League East. They deserved better. What they got was a 9-2 loss to the Florida Marlins, and the Nats were losing before half the crowd could get to its seats. Ace John Patterson gave up one run in the first, two in the second and six by the time he left after 3 2/3 innings. All the Nationals could muster offensively off Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis was two runs in seven innings. Was anyone surprised? They stunk. They stunk yesterday, they probably will stink tonight, and there is a good chance they will stink tomorrow. But I don't want to write about how bad they were or how bad they are going to be. It's the first game of the season, and I'm already tired of writing it, let alone expecting someone to read it. Nationals president Stan Kasten said to me he wants to know what kind of scam I have going with my editors because I keep writing the same column. Not today. No, no, I don't care how bad they were. You know it by now. Instead, the story here will be about mascots, who will be the stars of the show at RFK this season. Yesterday, it was Teddy Roosevelt, who rappelled from the roof in right field when the racing presidents came out from the bullpen for the home stretch of the most-popular event at the ballpark, the race in the middle of the fourth inning. There was Teddy, winless in the racing competition, attached to a rope dangling from the roof, taking off as George Washington, Abe Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson ran for the finish line. Teddy rappelled over them and eventually landed on the field on his back to the roar of the crowd, which, with the score 6-0, was happy for any diversion - even a giant head flying in the sky. This was pretty gutsy and surely worth celebrating on a day with nothing else to celebrate. So I asked team officials if I could talk to the guy in the Teddy costume who was willing to risk life and limb to make Opening Day a special event. You would have thought I was asking to exhume the real Teddy Roosevelt for an interview. First, one club representative said sure, no problem, just let me double-check. He comes back a few minutes later and says, "No, he doesn't want to do it." I'm being stiffed by a mascot. Now I have no choice but to write about the fact that Nationals pitchers issued eight walks. Or about how Cristian Guzman, the No. 2 hitter who left the game in the bottom of the fifth inning with a strained left hamstring, couldn't move a runner from first to second if the runner was rappelling from base to base. But, wait: We are going to be spared going there, because now I have been told the Nationals are revisiting the issue and yes, I will be able to talk to Rappelling Teddy after all. So after the game, they introduce me to 38-year-old Brett Rhinehardt of Charlotte, N.C. He describes the preparations they made for Teddy to rappel into the ballpark. "We start with a sandbag test, what we call a proof test, and from there we do a live load," he said. "I do the first live load test without the costume. From there, we start increasing the speed, and after I've done it, we bring the performer in, and the performer starts doing it immediately. We probably did a dozen run-throughs yesterday and did one dress rehearsal today, and then the performer was dialed in and ready." He keeps referring to "the performer, the performer," and I am wondering if I am talking to the mascot with the biggest ego in history, referring to himself in third person as "the performer." It turns out that I am not talking to Rappelling Teddy. This is the guy who owns the company that sets these up at sporting events all over the country. He is a veteran mascot - he was the Mariner Moose who broke his ankle rollerblading into an outfield wall during a playoff game between Seattle and the New York Yankees in 1995 - but he's not the guy who was flying through the air at RFK yesterday. Later, another club representative tells me the Nationals have some sort of Disney-like policy, where people in costume are not allowed to be interviewed, as if there is some sort of mystique to protect. I guess ballplayers are exempt. This won't do, though, because this year my beat will be mascots, mascots and more mascots. You watch. By May, they'll be dropping presidents out of airplanes at the ballpark, like WKRP's Les Nessman and his turkeys, with Stan Kasten declaring, "As God is my witness, I thought presidents could fly!"

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