WASHINGTON - Baseball, hot dogs and the National Guard.

Such was the scene for the inaugural game at the new $611-million Nationals Park in Washington March 30 as Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen from the D.C. National Guard unfurled two American flags in the outfield, each 150-feet by 65-feet. The D.C. Air National Guard's 121st Fighter Squadron provided an F-16 Fighting Falcon flyover. The commander in chief, a former Air Guardsman himself, threw out the first ball.

For 33 seasons, from the Senators' final game in 1971 to the Nationals' first in 2005, the nation's capital was without major league baseball. It returned to the 43-year-old Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in 2005. On March 30, the Washington Nationals came home to a brand new stadium on South Capitol Street in the Capitol Riverfront District.

The crowd rose to its feet, clapped and cheered as about 100 Guardmembers filed through the stadium before the flag unfurling.

"We're Americans, we're Soldiers, and we appreciate it," said Army Maj. Curtis Cherry with the D.C. National Guard's Joint Force Headquarters. The flag ceremony has become a National Guard tradition at the Nationals' opening game. "It's an honor and a privilege that the District of Columbia National Guard was asked to be here," he said.

Walking out on to the outfield with the flag is a special moment," the Iraq veteran said. "You remember your service. You remember your fallen comrades. You remember the honor and duty and the reason why you serve."

Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Rayfield, 276th Military Police Battalion, is a 15-year Guard veteran. "It's a good honor," she said. "It made you feel real good."

"It's quite a privilege," said Air Force Staff Sgt. Jason Bruner, 113th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. "There's a tremendous sense of pride."

In uniform, Tech. Sgt. Cheryl Hackley is a public affairs specialist for the National Guard Bureau's counterdrug program. Off-duty, she's a National's ball girl.

"This is my third year with the team," Hackley said. "It's an unbelievable opportunity."

She expects to work about 40 night and weekend games this year. Her mission: corralling souvenir foul balls.

"Protocol says give the ball to a young fan dressed in Nats gear," she said.

Nationals Park is designed to bring the fans close to the game. More than half of the capacity crowd of 41,222 can find their seats straight from street level, without using ramps, escalators or elevators. Hackley said the atmosphere is intimate.

"This will be a new experience this year with the stadium, with the seating - the fans are right there," she said. "I had about 25 kids behind me the whole game. They want to talk. It's so much fun. The kids look up to you. It's great."

Hackley's been a Guardmember since 1999:

"It was never anything I expected to do with my life or my career," she said. "Ever since I got in, it's been one fabulous opportunity. The travel. The experience. Going to school part time and finishing my degree. I've been around the world now, and I work in our nation's capital: a phenomenal experience."

As for the Guard's role in this Nationals inaugural game, Hackley said, "It's fabulous. The National Guard is part of your community, and what else is part of your community' America's favorite pastime, baseball."

The Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves 3-2.

(Staff Sgt. Jim Greenhill serves with the National Guard Bureau.)