No Time to Rest in the Homestretch
Ballpark Crews Rush to Meet This Month's Deadline

By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 2, 2008

The turf is growing, all the seats are nearly in and the high-definition scoreboard is lighted. The lights are glowing, and the water is flowing, with four weeks left to go before the opening of Nationals Park.

On March 30, before an expected packed house of 41,000 fans, the Washington Nationals will take the field for their regular-season opener against the Atlanta Braves. With visions of cherry trees blooming beyond the outfield and the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop, the team is right on target to open the $611 million ballpark off South Capitol Street. In fact, construction executives say they might even clear inspections and get a certificate of occupancy within a week.

Workers have been racing to complete the ballpark since construction began nearly two years ago. Such an accomplishment would be a remarkable feat for a project that has kept to one of the tightest schedules ever for a stadium, officials said.

"We are very pleased with the progress of the ballpark construction and the spirit of cooperation between the city and the Nationals to get the job done and the opening to be first-class," said Mark Lerner, the Nationals principal owner.

By the time the Nationals open the Major League Baseball season in a nationally televised game, the ballpark will have been tested twice. The first event comes March 22, when George Washington University takes on Saint Joseph's University in a game that will be open to a limited crowd of specially ticketed fans of those teams.

The bigger challenge comes March 29, when the Nationals play the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game. A full house is expected, setting the stage for the even bigger spotlight that comes with the regular season opener the next day.

At the groundbreaking in May 2006, officials warned that they had little room for error if they were going to get the park open on time. Architects and builders were diligent about ensuring that steel and other materials arrived on time, and they kept an efficient pace with a schedule that at times was nearly round-the-clock.

There are incentives to get the job done. The District will have to pay hefty penalties to the Nationals if the ballpark is not ready on time. And the contractors know they face an intractable deadline: a date when Washington and a national audience will see the results of their work. A ballpark that still looks like a construction zone would be an embarrassment.

Unlike retro-style ballparks such as Baltimore's Camden Yards, Nationals Park has been designed to complement Washington's traditional architecture. For now, though, the scene outside looks a mess. The park remains surrounded by chain-link fencing, storage containers and construction machinery. All that will be cleaned up, officials insist.

At the moment, team executives seem less concerned about the state of the ballpark than about potential traffic and parking hassles for fans trying to get there.

Two parking garages at the ballpark provide about 1,200 spaces and will be used primarily by fans in the priciest seats and suites. Season ticket holders were promised a chance to buy parking at lots within walking distance for as much as $35 a game.

"We were able to place every season ticket holder that wanted a space," said Gregory McCarthy, a Nationals executive who has focused on parking issues. "We're looking at how many [spaces] are left and evaluating whether" they could be available for fans with tickets for single games. Those tickets go on sale Tuesday, including several thousand available for the official Opening Day.

Fans without season ticket spaces can park at RFK Stadium for free and take free shuttles to the ballpark. For those who drive, that could be the best option. City officials announced new parking restrictions last week to keep fans from parking on neighborhood streets during games.

For months, officials have been promoting Metro as the best way to get to the ballpark. The Navy Yard Station, on the Green Line, is a block north of the stadium and is being renovated to accommodate expected crowds. Metro is tripling the station's capacity so that it can handle 15,000 passengers an hour.

While work continued last week at the Metro station, construction supervisors led building inspectors through the ballpark. They checked safety equipment, including smoke and fire alarms and emergency generators. Food safety inspectors have begun looking over kitchens, too.

Shiny stainless steel refrigerators and stoves are being installed to serve the concession stands. And, perhaps most important for a good many fans, in the subterranean service floors, two giant beer coolers are in place.

In addition to sprucing up the stands for the majority of the crowd, crews are wrapping up work on the luxury suites. The suites are painted and being furnished, and fancy light fixtures hang from the ceilings of the bar for the high-rollers, located behind home plate.

Construction crews have set priorities to maximize their impact. Work on some offices for Nationals executives on the south side of the ballpark, for example, is slightly behind schedule. That is mainly so that all areas that fans will see can be completed.

Soon the construction workers will give way to the people who will staff the ballpark -- the ticket-takers, ushers, concessions workers and others whose performance in the first few weeks will be crucial to giving fans an experience befitting the splashy new facility. The Nationals have recruited hundreds of workers through job fairs and have begun training them.

The college game will be a dress rehearsal allowing many of those employees to practice their jobs without the crush of fans that will come when the Nationals arrive.

The March 30 game against Atlanta will be broadcast on ESPN, and the national audience will get a taste of Washington thanks to camera angles designed to capture the view of the Capitol dome just over the left-field horizon.

Part of that view, beyond the outfield, will include a spread of cherry trees, a Washington signature, that the team hopes to plant in the coming days. The planting has been delayed mainly by the recent cold snap.

Mostly, now, it's about the final touches and cleanup. In the final days before the college game and the opening weekend, "we'll be cleaning," said Ronnie Strumpf, the Clark Construction vice president who has been in charge of day-to-day construction.

Workers will give extra attention to the plaza on the ballpark's north side, which will be where most fans enter. Late last week, crews were building a concession stand just inside the ticket gates.

"Everybody knows that Opening Day is the deadline, and that motivates everyone," said Gregory A. O'Dell, chief executive of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which owns the ballpark and has been overseeing its construction.

O'Dell stood in the parking garage on a recent day and looked over the progress. "We're close in most areas," he said. He took over the commission in July after six months of working on development issues for Neil O. Albert, deputy mayor for planning and economic development.

When O'Dell came on the job, construction had just begun on the garage. "I can't be more proud of every single worker," he said. "Now the motivation is, 'Get the last push done.' "

The most prominent Nationals employees have not seen the latest progress. The team's players are at spring training in Florida and will not arrive in Washington until the day before the Orioles exhibition game. When they return, they will find a workplace nothing like what they had at the 46-year-old RFK.

The players' quarters are finished, with touches including a brightly lighted water therapy room that includes two whirlpools and a deep tub with a treadmill in its floor.

The clubhouse is oval with dark wood lockers. A Louisville Slugger is built into each divider between the lockers.

In the middle of the room is a custom-made carpet, leaving no mistake about whose room it is. In flowing script, it spells out "Washington Nationals."

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