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Braves notebook: Braves enjoy visit from President

ATLANTA - The Atlanta Braves didn't get a win in Washington's opening of Nationals Park, but they did take away some memories.

Plus, a few special souvenirs.

"The President signed a practice jersey for me, on the number," Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. "I'm going to get it framed."

Before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch Sunday night, George W. Bush visited both the Braves and Nationals clubhouses.

"He shook hands with everyone and I think about everybody got him to sign something," Francoeur said. "He was really cool."

It wasn't the first time that Francoeur or catcher Brian McCann - the Braves' other player from Gwinnett County - had met the President. They were part of a team contingent that toured the White House last summer.

"The President loves baseball and he is great to talk to him," Francoeur said. "He is just like a regular guy."

Two historic home runs

President Bush was in the broadcast booth when Braves third baseman Chipper Jones connected in the fourth inning off Odalis Perez for a home run and did his own play-by-play.

"It looks like Chipper is going to have the first homer at this ballpark," the President said. "That thing was a rope."

But the homer that really made history was the blast by Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman in the ninth inning that gave the Nationals a 3-2 victory.

The Braves had scored the tying run in the top of the inning on a passed ball, getting starter Tim Hudson off the hook. Hudson retired 19 consecutive batters after giving up two runs in the first inning.

A touch of blue

Without prior notice, the Braves wore new alternate road jerseys and hats in the opener at Washington. Even the players didn't find out until about an hour before the game.

The jerseys are dark blue, with blue numbers framed in white. The hats are the same color and don't have a red brim. "I liked them," Francoeur said of the new duds, even if they didn't bring much luck.

The Braves will use the alternate outfit for select road games. At home, the alternate red jerseys will continue to be worn for Sunday games.

Spezio gets minor league deal

The Braves signed troubled veteran utilityman Scott Spiezio to a minor league contract and he will start the season with Class AAA Richmond.

Spiezio, who has had drug and alcohol issues, was released by St. Louis at the start of spring training after details of a winter arrest in California came to light. He has been in a treatment program.

"We're willng to give him a second chance," Braves general manager Frank Wren said.

Smoltz ready to go

John Smoltz pitched five innings in a minor league camp game Sunday in Florida and is on schedule to come off the disabled list for a start against the New York Mets in the homestand finale next Sunday.

Smoltz will throw twice in side sessions this week before opposing the Mets, who are scheduled to pitch new ace Johan Santana in what could be a very intriguing pitching matchup.

Prior to his minor league game, Smoltz went to Houston to see his Michigan State Spartans play Memphis in the NCAA Tournament. That didn't go very well.

"I was pumped up and then the game was over in a couple minutes," Smoltz said. "But way until next season. That could be our year."

Less foul territory

The distance between home plate and the backstop at Turner Field is now just 43 feet - the shortest in the majors - thanks to the three rows of high-priced new seats behind home plate.

The shorter distance will mean less foul ball outs, a disadvantage for pitchers. But it will also be more difficult for a runner to advance on a wild pitch or passed ball.

Does that put extra pressure on the third base coach?

"Not really," said the Braves' Brian Snitker, a Snellville resident. "If the runner on third waits for the coach to tell him to go, he wasn't going to make it anyway. It has to be an instinct thing."

Series resumes Wednesday

The Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates are off today, then play again on Wednesday and Thursday. Jair Jurrjens will make his Braves debut against Pittsburgh's Tom Gorzelanny, then Mike Hampton will pace the Pirates' Paul Maholm in the series finale.

SideBar: Skip Caray to only do home games

ATLANTA - Skip Caray's 33rd season as an Atlanta Braves broadcaster will include only home games because of health issues.

Caray, who didn't travel to Washington for the Braves' opener against the Nationals on Sunday, was hospitalized for several weeks last fall. His ailments include diabetes and congestive heart failure.

Pete Van Wieren will call the home games on radio with his long-time partner, then work most of the road games with either Joe Simpson or Chip Caray - Skip's son.

"If feeling better, but I still need to be careful," Caray said. "I'm not ready to do any traveling right now.

Caray and Van Wieren began calling Braves games in 1975 and became synonymous will the team because of TBS. The cable channel no longer carries the team's games nationally.