Nats' Opening Day features awards, heroes
WASHINGTON -- An offseason of hype gave way to an Opening Day filled with fanfare for the Nationals on Monday afternoon, as the team featured a jam-packed set of festivities before its game against the Marlins.
The Nationals reflected on last season's success by unveiling their National League East title banner and handing out numerous awards, while celebrities and military members lent some additional gravitas to the proceedings.
A standing-room-only crowd filled Nationals Park early to celebrate last year's 98-win season and look ahead to a campaign packed with expectations.
"Opening Day is a special day for everyone, particularly the fans in Washington coming off of last year," Nationals chief operating officer Andrew Feffer said. "It's not just hope, it's what the expectations are for this year.
"It's about the atmosphere. There's an energy and vibe that hadn't existed until last year."
One of the centerpieces of the day was the division-title banner, which was revealed atop the scoreboard in right field.
"There was a lot of hard work from a lot of people," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. "It's a proud day for the organization, and being a general manager of the organization, I take great pride in being the National League East champions, and today starts anew. So we'll unveil that, put it behind us and start looking toward '13 and doing something special."
The Nationals also honored several key pieces of last season's success. Rizzo received his MLB Executive of the Year Award, Davey Johnson his NL Manager of the Year Award, Bryce Harper his NL Rookie of the Year Award and first baseman Adam LaRoche his NL Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards. Shortstop Ian Desmond and pitcher Stephen Strasburg also received Silver Slugger Awards.
For LaRoche, starting his 10th Major League season, the awards were his first. Family and friends came in from out of town to see him take the hardware.
"I got them four or five months ago and still haven't seen them yet," LaRoche said. "It'll be cool to finally see them and get my hands on them.
"So it'll be neat, especially the Gold Glove, which is something I've kind of worked toward my whole career, quietly. It was always something I've really wanted to get. So it took nine years, but I can't complain. It'll be pretty cool to have one."
The Nationals also welcomed several guests for the festivities. Broadcaster James Brown was the master of ceremonies, and Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray delivered the lineup cards to home plate. Winthrop Roosevelt, the great-great grandson of Theodore Roosevelt -- who now takes the form of the one of the team's racing presidents -- gave the call to "Play ball."
Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, a Medal of Honor recipient for his heroics serving the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
"It's a great honor to be invited out here to throw out the first pitch Opening Day for the Nationals," Romesha said. "This is something presidents do, it's something celebrities do, but to see that welcome for a military service, that hand reaching out from the Nationals and all they've done, it's a true honor to just be in the this moment and having this experience."
Feffer called the military "part of the fabric of the Washington Nationals," and service members played a major role in the ceremonies. Army Staff Sergeant Brian Keaton raised the Nationals flag in the center-field plaza. the U.S. Army Chorus Quartet performed "America the Beautiful," and later the national anthem after the U.S. Armed Forces Color Guard -- accompanied by the U.S. Navy Drummers -- presented the colors.
Children of deployed service members ran out on the field before the first inning to be joined by Nationals players, and Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered the game ball.
All of the pomp and circumstance served as a reminder of the franchise's progress since it arrived in Washington from Montreal in 2005.
"I think it's a testament to this club and how far they've come, because I remember coming here and playing against the Nationals, and they were awful," LaRoche said. "[RFK Stadium, the Nats' former home] was a bad stadium, it was a bad ballclub -- you almost felt bad for them.
"So to see the change here, where instead of feeling bad for the Nationals, now you have a lot of teams I'm sure are jealous of the Nationals. So it's been a pretty cool one-eighty they've done and now you're seeing it. You're seeing it with the fans that come out, you'll see it with everything that takes place before today's game."