WASHINGTON -- Two cities intertwined in baseball history resumed one of the sport's truly lopsided "rivalries" last night - after 35 years.
So much has changed since the New York Yankees and a Washington ballclub - it was the Senators then - last played on Sept. 30, 1971, in the final regular-season game in the nation's capital until last season.
Seven presidents had come or gone, the Senators had moved to Texas to become the Rangers, and aging RFK Stadium became a venue for soccer and rock concerts - not baseball.
But there were the Yankees and Washington Nationals last night, back in the same stadium and playing before 44,749 fans - the largest home crowd since the Nationals arrived from Montreal. And there were the Yankees winning, 7-5, which was fitting, historically speaking.
New York won when 37-year-old Bernie Williams, who had four hits, broke a 5-5 tie with a bases-empty homer off Washington closer Chad Cordero in the ninth. Johnny Damon's sacrifice fly gave the Yankees an insurance run, and winning pitcher Mariano Rivera (4-3) got the Nats in order in the ninth.
Washington was battling the weight of history. From 1961 through 1971, Yankees teams were 121-74 against Washington. Leading 7-5, the Senators had lost their final game to New York in a forfeit when fans made a mad dash onto the field for souvenirs in the ninth inning, unnerving many of the players.
In a bow to history, the Nationals asked former Senators slugger Frank Howard to throw out last night's ceremonial first pitch. Howard had homered in the 1971 finale as Washington rallied to take the lead, only to ultimately suffer another loss.
Could the Nationals have been seeking revenge against New York last night? Well, it was a little late for that.
"By the 1950s, the relationship between these two former rivals had become so lopsided that the prospect of a Washington pennant existed only in the imagination of a novelist," says Frederic J. Frommer, author of a book on the history of baseball in Washington.
According to Frommer, it was a Senators fan, Douglass Wallop, who wrote a book in 1954 about a man who sells his soul to the devil so he can lead the Senators to a pennant over the Yankees. The book became the basis for the Broadway musical Damn Yankees.
"In the real world, of course, the Yankees won the pennant in '55, and the Senators finished in last place, 43 games back," Frommer said.
Last night's game not only produced the season's largest crowd, but also one of the noisiest. Some of the excitement was produced by a healthy contingent of Yankees fans, who seemed thrilled to have a new site to watch their team.
"Hey, Joe, this is like Christmas for us," one fan yelled at New York manager Joe Torre before the game.
Torre was signing autographs before the game, even though he was sitting out a one-game suspension for an incident in which Randy Johnson threw at Eduardo Perez during Wednesday's win against Cleveland.
Torre said he had never played or managed in a stadium like RFK that had been without meaningful baseball for so many years, only to be returned to service. "It is very unusual," he said. "The only thing that could come close to it is if Los Angeles gets a football team again."
The Nationals took a 5-3 lead in the sixth on an RBI double by Ryan Zimmerman. But New York scored twice in the eighth, the tying run coming in on a bases-loaded walk issued by Gary Majewski.
The Nationals' Alfonso Soriano hit his 24th home run of the year in the third.
NOTE -- Washington shortstop Royce Clayton was listed as day-to-day after injuring his right shoulder diving for a ball in the eighth.