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OPENING WEEKEND

Built at the Speed of a Fastball, Stadium Is Ready for Nationals

Eugene Robertson of Hyattsville paints the stairs at Nationals Park as final preparations are made before tonight's exhibition game between Washington and Baltimore. The Nationals' season opener is tomorrow.
Eugene Robertson of Hyattsville paints the stairs at Nationals Park as final preparations are made before tonight's exhibition game between Washington and Baltimore. The Nationals' season opener is tomorrow. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Daniel LeDuc and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 29, 2008

Well, fans, it's game time.

And all appears ready.

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Three years after big-league baseball's long-awaited return to the nation's capital; after seemingly intractable public squabbling over whether to build a ballpark and how to pay for it; and after a mostly glitch-free, $611 million publicly financed construction project that began just 22 months ago, the Washington Nationals will take the field tonight for the first time in a gleaming new stadium.

First pitch: 6 p.m., in an exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles. It'll be a test for Nationals Park, for its lights and plumbing, its concession stands and parking, and a test for Metro's nearby Navy Yard Station, which has been expanded to accommodate 15,000 riders an hour, up from 5,000. Admission tonight is limited to season ticket holders and guests of the team, about 30,000 spectators.

Then comes tomorrow's grand opening. The team expects a full house, 41,888, when the Nats host the Atlanta Braves in the regular season's first game, to be televised nationally on ESPN starting at 8 p.m. Gates open at 3 p.m. today and 3:30 p.m. tomorrow.

"This is the culmination of a lot of work," Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) said at a news conference yesterday, as a bevy of city officials, team executives, construction managers and others, all smiling, gathered at the ballpark on the Southeast Washington waterfront to declare it ready for business.

"It was put on a schedule so tight that most people said the stadium would never be ready," Fenty said in a plaza just beyond left-centerfield, framed by a backdrop of emerald turf and soaring decks of royal blue seats.

"We're here to say the stadium will be ready for baseball" tonight, the mayor declared.

It remains to be seen whether the ballpark will be the economic engine in coming years that its supporters predict, bringing a retail, residential and office-space boom to the long-stagnant blocks near South Capitol Street and the Washington Navy Yard. Although some development has begun, even the project's most optimistic boosters say it will take at least five years for the stadium district to fully blossom.

But today, for Nationals players and their fans -- stuck in old, uncomfortable RFK Stadium since 2005 -- the wait for a sparkling, state-of-the-art ballpark is finally over.

"It's a relief, but it's also a sad day," said Ronnie Strompf, the Clark Construction superintendent who managed the project, living with it day after day for nearly two years, often getting by on four hours of sleep a night. "We go from being the controlling party to being one of 41,888 fans."

All around him on the mild spring morning -- a nice day for baseball -- workers in hard hats bustled, touching up paint here, installing lighting there, sweeping, buffing, wiping.


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