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

By Daniel LeDuc and Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 29, 2008

Well, fans, it's game time.

And all appears ready.

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.

"The punch list," he called it.

"We had a lot of naysayers," Strompf said, sounding immensely satisfied. "The only way I was going to put those fears to rest was to go out and build it."

Nationals President Stan Kasten referred to the "inevitable infighting" that took place involving the city, the team, the construction contractors and others while the fast-paced project was underway.

"Sure, we had issues, lots of them, all the time," he said. "But the predictions of turmoil were greatly exaggerated. We all will continue to work together to make it better. We want it perfect on Opening Day, and then we expect to improve on that."

At M and Half streets SE, a short fly ball from the stadium's outfield gates, Fenty and other officials gathered later in the morning to formally declare another project a success: the $20 million expansion of Metro's Navy Yard Station on the Green Line. With parking at a premium around the ballpark, officials for months have been urging fans to use public transportation.

Metro said it will operate 10 extra Green Line trains for Saturday's game and 15 extra trains on Sunday, each six to eight cars long.

Metrobuses on the N22 route between the Navy Yard Station and the Eastern Market and Union Station Metro stops will run every 10 minutes from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. today and from 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. tomorrow, Metro said. The buses are an option for fans not wanting to transfer to the Green Line from other Metrorail lines.

Back at Nationals Park, officials pointed out that the ballpark has been officially certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, the first major stadium in the country to receive such a designation.

The award means the stadium has met the council's criteria for environmental sensitivity, including plumbing systems that conserve water, energy-efficient field lighting, the use of recycled materials in construction, and water-absorbing vegetation on the roof of a large concession stand on the north plaza, by the left-field seats.

"This is a symbol for every D.C. resident that they can be proud of," Matthew Cutts, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, said of the ballpark.

As head of the city agency overseeing the project, Cutts, a lawyer, will have an honorary role in tonight's exhibition game. He'll officially begin the contest by shouting the home plate umpire's traditional command:

"Play ball!"

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