WASHINGTON -- On Opening Day, Nationals Park was decked out in red, white and blue bunting as the Statue of Freedom atop the U.S. Capitol dome peered in from beyond the left-field wall. The place was brimming with optimistic fans wearing jerseys of the team’s stars: Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman.
It was Opening Day for the Marlins, too, but even in this baseball-crazed city, no one quite knew what to make of the team from Miami.
Sure, there was Giancarlo Stanton, the strapping slugger. But what was 37-year-old Placido Polanco doing in the cleanup spot? Who, exactly, is Donovan Solano? There were faint recollections of Chris Coghlan as a Rookie of the Year. Casey Kotchman used to play first base in Cleveland, or was it Seattle? Hard to keep it straight because he is on his sixth team in six years. Nine of the 25 Marlins had never been on a major-league Opening Day roster previously. Rookie manager Mike Redmond, ex-catcher, was skipper of Class A Dunedin last season.
A hodgepodge lineup faced a meticulously constructed one. The result Monday was illustrative of the talent differential: Washington won 2-0 on the strength of two solo home runs by 2012 National League Rookie of the Year Harper while ace Strasburg shackled the Marlins by allowing only three hits in seven innings.
It was a snapshot of two franchises going in different directions.
Washington is following a map and driving toward a dynasty, with young players signed for years. A long-term plan is blooming like cherry blossoms in April.
Miami is at another one of its funky intersections, uncertain which way to turn, idling in neutral.
The Marlins observed politely as the Nationals celebrated their 2012 National League East championship with a parade of pregame introductions and congratulations.
“That’s what you get when you win,” said Juan Pierre, 35, who is back with the Marlins as sensei/outfielder/leadoff hitter. “It was good for us to have to watch it.”
A regular-season record crowd of 45,274 enjoyed the festivities. The Marlins might draw half that number for their home opener Monday against Atlanta, when there won’t be any celebration of a last-place finish, a 69-93 record, the firing of Ozzie Guillen and the flushing of expensive big-name players who failed to produce. In fact, depending on who is introduced at Marlins Park, there could be bitter booing from distrustful spectators. (Can the term “fan” be applied to Marlins ticket-buyers anymore?)
“Although we were the visiting team, we appreciate how the fans support their team,” said Ricky Nolasco, who pitched respectably except for the curve and slider Harper whacked over the right-center wall. “It was a great atmosphere. They’ve got a good thing going here.”
Not so long ago, the Nationals had a very bad thing going here. What is now a hot ticket in town could be had for free in giveaways at local elementary schools. The Washington franchise was reborn in 2005 in the complex deal that enabled Jeffrey Loria to dump the Montreal Expos and purchase the Marlins while John Henry took over ownership of the Boston Red Sox.
Like the old Florida Marlins, the Nationals were stuck in a football stadium. Six years ago, they moved into a controversial, city-funded $611 million baseball stadium in an area ripe for gentrification.