Marty Niland: Flashing back to happier times after a lost weekend

The Academy Award-winning film “The Lost Weekend” details an alcoholic’s troubles in giving up his bad habits during an especially rough weekend.

Sound familiar, Nationals fans?

There will be plenty of time to reflect on the Nats’ lost weekend in Atlanta. The injuries, the errors, the baserunning mistakes and all their other failures in their sweep at the hands of the Braves will no doubt be analyzed ad nauseum in the coming days.

Where we choose to begin today, however, is the part of the movie where the protagonist flashes back to how it all began, our attempt to take our minds off the team’s current troubles on what should be the happiest of anniversaries for fans of baseball in the nation’s capital.

On this day nine years ago, April 14, 2005, Washington’s new team played for the first time at RFK Stadium, and the city’s baseball fans got to attend their first major league game in nearly 34 years.

For a city that had lost two franchises to other cities, been used as a bargaining chip by owners for better deals in their own cities, and been rejected as an expansion candidate, it was Inauguration Day, Fourth of July and the Cherry Blossom Festival all rolled into one.

After watching other teams in other cities for years, and after watching the deal to bring the Montreal Expos to town nearly fall apart before being revived at the last minute, Washington finally had a team to call its own.

The new team opened the season with a 5-4 road trip (including sweeping two from Atlanta), and on Thursday, April 14, when the Arizona Diamondbacks came to visit, it was finally time for RFK to host a game that counted for the first time since Sept. 30, 1971.

What a beautiful day it was: sunny and 62 degrees at game time; perfect weather for baseball. The sellout crowd of 45,596 included fans of all ages - some who remembered when the original Senators moved to Minnesota and the expansion Senators moved to Texas, and some who had never known of a team in Washington.

The crowd was in a festive mood, cheering everyone from the high school band that played before the game to the assistant clubhouse manager introduced with the rest of the team.

Stadium announcer Charlie Brotman, 77 at the time, performed his duties just as he had at every Senators home opener since joining the team in 1956. He told reporters that night it was one of most joyous moments of his life.

Another tradition that had been on hold for decades was renewed when President George W. Bush took the mound in a Nationals warmup jacket and fired one on the fly to Nats catcher Brian Schneider. The ball, handed to him by former Senators reliever Joe Grzenda, was the same one Grzenda threw for the Senators’ final pitch in 1971, just before fans stormed the field and turned the team’s last home game from a 7-5 lead with two outs in the ninth in to a 9-0 forfeit loss to the New York Yankees.

The real first pitch, though, was a fastball off the right arm of Livan Hernandez, the veteran ace of the staff. A former World Series MVP with Florida in 1997, Hernandez would go on to win 15 games for the Nats in their inaugural season. On this night, he would spin one of his typical gems, allowing just one hit until the ninth inning when he gave up a walk and a single, and future Nats goon squad leader Chad Tracy followed with a three-run homer.

Even that could not ruin the night for Hernandez and the Nats. They got all the offense they needed from Vinny Castilla, who went 3-for-3, only a single short of the cycle, drove in four runs and scored one himself. His triple in the fourth inning plated Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen with the first two runs of the National League era at RFK, and he came in on Schneider’s sacrifice fly to make it 3-0. Two innings later, Castilla belted a homer with Ryan Church aboard to make it 5-0.

After Hernandez got into trouble with Tracy’s home run, Chad Cordero got the final two outs of the game for the second of his major league-leading 47 saves that season.

It was a thrilling night for Nats fans, the start of a thrilling season that would see the transplants from Montreal rise as high as 19 games over .500, go on a 10-game winning streak and spend an astounding 63 days in first place before fading in the final months to finish 81-81.

For the baseball-starved fans of Washington, it was pure happiness, a feeling that can sustain them, even through the hangover of a lost weekend nine years later.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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