By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Less than 19 hours before the first game, the last seats were bolted in place. The city permit allowing public access was issued the very morning that the teams took the field. And the sod was so sorry looking, workers sprayed it with vegetable dye to make it look green enough.
If you think the new Nationals Park, still under construction, is cutting it close as Opening Day approaches Sunday, consider the first game at D.C. Stadium in 1961. The ballpark, better known now as RFK Stadium, opened with a Redskins game and upheld a long Washington tradition of down-to-the-wire completion.
Washington's new ballpark on South Capitol Street is little different. Construction workers in hard hats are laboring on the concourse. And city officials are bracing for traffic congestion and parking mayhem in the compacted neighborhood that surrounds the stadium.
New stadiums in any city frequently become iconic focal points, places where sports history is made and fans celebrate and grieve for their teams. Verizon Center, for example, transformed its surroundings.
And in Washington, new stadiums and arenas always open with fanfare befitting a civic holiday, along with chaos.
Old National Baseball Park, the home before the turn of the last century to the old Washington Senators, was once partially rebuilt because of a fire three weeks before an opening game. Verizon Center's opening in 1997 was marked by hungry fans in long, slow-moving concession lines. Many Redskins fans were stranded in a 15-mile traffic backup that same year trying to get to the first home game at what is now FedEx Field.
By comparison, Nationals Park seems almost ahead of schedule. The seats are in and the sod, which has been growing since November, has been cut numerous times. On Saturday, the first crowd of fans watched a baseball game between George Washington University and Saint Joseph's University. About 3,000 guests of the schools watched the game, which GWU won, 9-4.
The game gave ballpark workers a dress rehearsal. The next test is Saturday, when the Nationals host the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game with 30,000 fans expected.
It is all a buildup to Sunday, the official opener against the Atlanta Braves in a nationally televised night game on ESPN. More than 41,000 fans are expected at the ballpark, arriving on foot, by bike, via Metro and in cars.
"The number one concern of fans is how to get there," said Gordon M. Thomas, a Washington lobbyist and historian of Griffith Stadium, a former home of the Senators that was torn down in 1965. "That doesn't seem to be any different now. D.C. Stadium had that. FedEx had that."
So did the Capital Centre in Prince George's County when it opened in 1973. Some local dignitaries nearly missed the initial moments of the basketball game between the Capital Bullets and the Seattle SuperSonics. "We knew [traffic] would be bad -- but not this bad," County Executive William W. Gullett said at the time.
Just as scary for the Bullets was that county inspectors did not give final approvals for the Landover arena until 4 p.m. on the day of the first game, Dec. 2, 1973. Carpenters were installing seats that day but, The Washington Post reported, they apparently finished because no one complained about a lack of seating.
Last-minute hammering, overwhelmed facilities and a glut of fans seems standard in the nation's capital.
More than 4,000 fans showed up for the Senators' Opening Day in a stadium in 1891, and many were left without seats, according to news reports from then. A month before the opening of what was soon to be called the National Baseball Park, The Post reported that "rough trunks of great oak trees lay here and there over the field, some of them cut up into cord wood and piled ready to be hauled away. All over the field were great holes, where the roots of the big oaks had been cut off near the trunk."
In 1911, the wooden stands there were destroyed in a fire while the Senators were at spring training.
"By necessity, the concrete and steel era came to Washington. It came quickly," according to the 1975 volume in a history book series titled "The Ballparks." "The single-deck stand from first base to third was built in only eighteen days and opened on schedule."
It was, however, far from complete. "Early arrivers saw the new park in something of an unfinished state with much of the concrete still clad in wooden forms. All of the seats were uncovered and no box seats had been installed except for the presidential party. William Howard Taft, a former ballplayer, threw out the ceremonial first ball. . . ."
If the surroundings sound less than ideal, consider that Taft was inaugurating the tradition of presidents throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day, a tradition President Bush will repeat Sunday.
National Baseball Park's name was later changed to Griffith Stadium in honor of the Senators' founder, Clark Griffith. The stadium, on what is now the site of Howard University Hospital, offered an early glimpse of the future of baseball that the Washington Nationals now face in their new ballpark. "There was no good way to drive there, and no good place to park," historian Thomas said.
With construction nearing completion at the stadium on South Capitol Street, attention has focused on how to get fans to the games. Nationals executives and city leaders urge fans to take Metro. Parking is limited in the neighborhood, and traffic congestion this weekend is all but a given.
"It all boils down to the game," said Frank Ceresi, a lawyer and sports historian who developed historic exhibits in the new ballpark. "Once people are in the seats, you live off the energy of the fans in the stands and root for the home team. . . . All the other angst seems to dissipate. It seems to melt away."
Until it's time to go home.