Fans Carried Away by First Encounter With Ballpark

By Nick Miroff and Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Washington Nationals opened the gates to their new baseball temple on the Anacostia River yesterday, and as soon as fans began streaming in, it was clear that the experience of watching a ballgame in the District had undergone a stunning transformation.

The dim tunnels and awkward views of RFK Stadium were gone, replaced by the wide-open design of Nationals Park, which also offered vastly improved cuisine and Major League Baseball's biggest scoreboard. Yesterday's game, played before a crowd of season-ticket holders and invited guests of the team, was a test run for tonight's season opener; many fans arrived early, some to beat the parking crunch, others simply to marvel.

On his way to his upper-deck seats, Beltsville resident Tony Corbo stopped for a moment on an open platform with sweeping views of Southeast Washington, the Anacostia River and the Washington Navy Yard. Wearing a bright red Nationals jacket and cap, he let the superlatives gush.

"It looks gorgeous," he said. "The sightlines are incredible."

The 56-year-old lobbyist was 19 when he watched the Senators play their final game at RFK, and now, with the new stadium in place, baseball's return to the Washington region seemed complete.

"This is going to be quite a section of the city," he predicted.

Fans expressed awe at the open-air concourse that faces the outfield and draws fans into the park from Half Street and the newly expanded Navy Yard Metro station. The plaza's cherry trees were bare and looked a few days removed from the nursery, but fans didn't care. They raved about the views and the free video games.

"It's smart that they have this kid zone, because it's more family-friendly," said Robert Stone, 11, who snagged a batting-practice home-run ball and tried out a PlayStation Grand Turismo racing game, a version so new that the on-screen instructions were in Japanese.

There was also Guitar Hero, video baseball and a karaoke machine called Singstar -- all at no extra cost. Nationals Park offered diversions for almost every age group, from batting cages and a shiny new playground for the young and the restless to $12 cocktails made with Grey Goose vodka, Crown Royal whisky and Hennessy cognac for the happy hour crowd.

The new ballpark's menu went beyond the usual fare. Coffee carts served espresso and cafe au lait. Concessions stocked imported beers and wine. For the traditional fan, there were, of course, Nats dogs. Some fans were rankled by the long concession lines. Many reported standing in line for 30 or 40 minutes, and a few missed much of the game waiting for food.

During the second inning, Matthew McCardle, 26, of Arlington County went with his wife to buy hot dogs and drinks. By the time they got their food, an hour and 20 minutes later, it was the sixth inning. By the time they finished eating and returned to their seats, it was the seventh inning. His superlatives were of a different sort.

"It was amazing," he said. "I literally got to watch one inning. RFK didn't have as many food options, but the most I had to wait was 20 minutes."

Nationals President Stan Kasten said some concessionaires were still working out the kinks and would make adjustments.

It was a different scene in the dark wood and red carpet ambiance of the President's Club lounge. The stadium's well-heeled fans enjoyed home-plate views and a buffet stocked with scallops, quiche and beef tenderloin.

"I feel like I'm at a five-star restaurant," said District resident David Hall, who said he went to the ballpark expecting "to be freezing with a dog in my hand."

But many fans said the open-air design of the stadium was its most impressive feature, even though an icy wind began to rake the upper decks when the sun set, shortly after the first pitch.

"Incredible," said Steve Berson, 50, of Bethesda, as he walked through the park with his son, Jack, 8. Berson said the new ballpark was a welcome change from RFK Stadium, the Nationals' 1960s-vintage home during their first three seasons in Washington. He ticked off some reasons: more food, wider concourses and an open feeling with a vista of the U.S. Capitol Dome.

But some fans said they were nostalgic for the Nationals former confines, however flawed.

"I'm going to miss RFK," said Edgewater resident Heather Latham. "I liked the old feel of it. There was a lot of history there."

By mid-afternoon, most of the stadium's concessions and souvenir shops were almost ready for the big rush. Almost. At the gift shop near home plate, manager Ebony Chester, 22, had been working since 8 a.m. to set out merchandise.

"I still didn't get the hands!" she lamented to a co-worker, referring to the foam "No. 1" fingers that are a major seller. The floors were covered with debris of unpacked boxes. "Lots of vacuuming," Chester said. "That's the last thing to do."

About 3 p.m., the gates opened, and fans were greeted by the Nationals' president mascots and vendors yelling, "Pro-grams!" Nationals players were playing catch in the outfield. At the concession stands near home plate, someone had already spilled pickle relish on the condiment cart. Baseball was finally here.

But outside, on South Capitol Street, workers were still bolting a Nationals logo to the stadium's facade. The workers, from Art Display in Capitol Heights, had hung "probably a thousand" banners and signs around the park. Was there anything left?

"There's a few parking signs," said Richard Blackmore, 52, of Northwest Washington.

"Nothing major," said Lawrence Jarvis, 51, of Alexandria.

Adam Wilk and his son, Brian, 14, arrived at 11 a.m. and waited outside Parking Lot A, greeting the players as they pulled up and collecting autographs.

The two wandered through construction zones that had been masked by fences and signs promoting the coming "Half Street Ballpark District."

"I'm the one who never thought they'd get this up," said Wilk, 44, a lawyer from Fairfax City. "I'm stunned. I'm really stunned. I keep thinking we're in a different city."

"With better food," said Brian, who, his father said, "has to stay on the honor roll if he is to spend weekends collecting autographs."

The Wilk family shared season tickets with another family for the past three seasons. But this year, Wilk realized he could get his own tickets higher up for the same amount of money and still have a good view.

Although the ballpark is oriented to the Capitol Dome, the dome's outline wasn't visible to everyone in the upper decks, including Tony Corbo. The lobbyist didn't mind.

"I spend a lot of time up there anyway," he said. "I'm here to watch the game -- not remind myself of work."

Staff writers David A. Fahrenthold and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.

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