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Nationals Ticket Distribution a Tough Balancing Act

The Nationals' first home game has generated more interest than most because it marks the return of baseball to Washington after 34 years, a night that will be marked as much for its symbolism and glitz as for what happens on the field.

The team already is planning to install two additional rows of seats on the field for opening night, extending from the dugouts into the outfield on both sides, Tavares said. This temporary arrangement will add nearly 300 seats. Major League Baseball, which for now owns the Nationals, and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which runs RFK Stadium, will decide who sits there.

Nationals tickets
Nationals tickets
Danny Matta, owner of GreatSeats.com in college Park, inventories his event tickets, mostly to concerts and sporting events. (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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Baseball officials and their guests also will have access to 60 seats in the lower bowl, which are designated as "team holds" and kept in reserve at each game in case dignitaries show up at the last minute.

"It's tricky, but we will be conservatively aggressive in what we hold back" for VIPs, sponsors and baseball officials, said David Cope, the Nationals' vice president of sales and marketing.

"What we don't want to do is put too many on sale and not hold enough and all of a sudden [baseball commissioner] Bud Selig calls -- or one of my major sponsors -- and I don't have a ticket for him," Cope said. "That can't be good."

For opening night, about 1,000 tickets have been made available to Nationals players and team employees, and as many as 1,000 more for corporate sponsors. Three hundred tickets are needed for entertainers and guests, including former Negro League players and members of the old Washington Senators.

Team officials say they have also set aside as many as 2,000 opening-night tickets for last-minute season-ticket buyers and for corporate sponsors who step forward in the next few days. One Nationals official said it is unlikely any of these tickets will be released to the public. The visiting team will receive about 350.

For the fan without a season ticket who is still hoping to attend opening night, RFK Stadium itself is part of the problem. It was built long before luxury suites became common. Whereas newer parks have dozens of these suites to sell to moneyed fans and corporate sponsors, RFK Stadium has just 11. That means most of Washington's high-powered crowd will be in the stands -- from opening night until at least 2008, when a new ballpark is scheduled to open in the District.

Camden Yards, by contrast, with a seating capacity of 48,190, has 72 luxury suites.

While the Nationals' players were in Florida this week, prepping for the 162-game season ahead, team officials were huddling in their offices at the stadium, punching numbers into calculators and trying to determine how many seats they could release for general sale while covering all the other bases.

They know demand is high. The lottery this week, which offered 400 fans a chance to buy four tickets each, generated 27,000 registrants. Losers received an e-mail from the club on Thursday, offering a 10 percent discount on Nationals merchandise.

"Our goal, my goal, [is] to be as inclusive as possible," Cope said. "I'd like to expose Washington Nationals baseball to as many potential new fans as I can so they like the experience."

The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission has been promised about 1,000 upper-deck tickets, team officials said. The commission plans to give away most of the $7 tickets to youth groups in the region.

Nationals officials say some opening-night tickets committed to team sponsors also will end up being distributed more widely. Miller Brewing and Modell's Sporting Goods, for example, will be running contests to give away seats, according to Cope.

In an interview this week, Cope also held out hope that more opening-night seats would be released by the team in the coming weeks. "If we can, we look forward to doing that," he said. "You know, we'll just fire up a press release: 'Hey! Starting tomorrow at 9 o'clock there's another 350 tickets for sale.' That would be a pleasure to do."

His recommendation to fans who get shut out?

"There are 80 other home baseball games involving the Washington Nationals this season," Cope said. "This will be the same team, the same uniform and the same stadium. The availability for seating will be much better on another day. There will be less hassles with parking and traffic and shorter lines at the concession stands."

And there's always the Orioles. As of last night, according to the team's Web site, there were still single seats available directly behind home plate for opening day at Camden Yards, while groups of eight could sit together in the outfield.

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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