Correction to This Article
A photo caption with an April 3 Metro article incorrectly identified Washington Nationals pitcher Ryan Wagner as Billy Wagner.

Opening Day at RFK Brings Smiles, Gripes

P.J. Eason, 10, of Kensington stretches for an autograph from pitcher Billy Wagner. The Marlins beat the Nationals, 9-2.
P.J. Eason, 10, of Kensington stretches for an autograph from pitcher Billy Wagner. The Marlins beat the Nationals, 9-2. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

As the Washington Nationals began a third season yesterday, the sky was cloudless, but neither the home team nor the ballpark seemed quite ready for Opening Day.

On the field, the Nats fell behind early and eventually lost their first game of 2007 to the Florida Marlins, 9-2.

In the stands, Nationals fans complained. About parking-lot traffic, snack booths and long lines for just about everything, including hot dogs and ATMs.

"Crowds. Traffic was tough. Parking was tough," said Justin Lee, 27, of Gaithersburg. And that was before he went for food: He and his friend Tony Mancuso, 33, of Georgetown waited 10 minutes at one stand only to learn that they had run out of paninis. Then they shifted to another food line where, after 20 more minutes, they were only halfway to the front.

"All I want is a hot dog," Lee said.

Despite the irritations, Opening Day is Opening Day. There was still a lot to like about a game on a sunny afternoon.

"The hats. The weather. The not working," said Perry Wagner, 42, of University Park, mentioning the free Nationals caps given to all fans. He had been waiting in a food line for five minutes but wouldn't complain. "I'm drinking a beer, and it's 2 in the afternoon. What's not to like?"

The game began with the unfurling of a massive, outfield-size American flag, a flyover by F-18 Super Hornet jets and a performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by the U.S. Army Band and Herald Trumpets. It was the third home opener at RFK Stadium since the Nationals moved to Washington from Montreal in 2005.

It was also, probably, the last: Next season, the team will move into a sleek new stadium being built along the Anacostia River in Southeast.

Some fans said they were sorry to see the old concrete stadium being phased out. They said they'd miss stomping their feet in the lower levels, which are hollow underneath, and feeling the stands shake. They'd miss the memories of old Washington Redskins and Washington Senators games there. And, this being traffic-obsessed Washington, several said they'd miss the easy access by car.

"I'm sad. It's easy to get in. It's easy to get out," said Lisa Britt, 39, of Springfield. She was watching from a first-base-side concourse with daughter Sayde, 2, on her shoulders. "You wish they would still save some money for the city and save this stadium. There's nothing wrong with it."

It seemed these feelings of love for RFK were more common in the first inning than in the fourth. By then, fans had been reminded of some of the old stadium's worst traits: narrow concourses and long lines, which produced jammed conditions and long waits.

The opener was the team's first under the Lerner family, real-estate developers who were announced as the team's owners last May. Back then, team President Stan Kasten said he had instructed Aramark, which provides concession service at RFK Stadium, to improve its speed and efficiency.

The game began at 1:05 p.m., and the official attendance was 40,389, more than 4,000 short of the stadium's capacity. Some sections of the upper decks were largely empty, and there were even empty seats in the lower areas.

Still, officials from the Nationals and from Aramark said the size of the crowd had strained their capacity. "You're going to have lines at any stadium on Opening Day," said Dave Freireich, a spokesman for Philadelphia-based Aramark. He added: "By and large, I think that we did a very good job."

Delays were also reported before the game, on roads leading to the stadium's parking lots. That problem was blamed on an unusual number of cars: more than 9,000, according to Tony Robinson, a spokesman for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. He said that was more than any other baseball crowd in the past three years, and about double the number at an average game. He said more fans should consider taking Metro.

And, as if fans didn't have enough to worry them, there were the Nationals themselves. Many experts have predicted that they will spend the year in baseball's cellar. Yesterday's lackluster game provided little evidence to the contrary.

But, for many fans, all of these troubles still couldn't outweigh the glorious feeling of a sunny day at the ballpark, with a whole season in front of them. Many said that, three years after baseball came back to Washington, the thrill is still there.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company