By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Washington's new ballpark hosted its first major crowd yesterday as more than 34,000 fans arrived for an exhibition game between the Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles, testing the facility and determining how easy it will be to get there.
Traffic moved smoothly, and drivers reported little trouble. But Metro trains -- promoted as the best way to get to Nationals Park, which is nestled in a dense Southeast neighborhood -- were packed, and some fans faced delays.
"It was standing room only, and they had to stop putting passengers on for a while," said J.D. Almond of Marshall, Va., who had taken the train to the Navy Yard Station, Metrorail's stop nearest the stadium.
Gates opened at 3 p.m. for the 6 p.m. game, giving the crowd ample time to arrive before the first pitch. Metro trains became crowded not only with baseball fans but also with sightseers attending the Cherry Blossom Festival and spectators leaving the early morning National Marathon, a sign that the ballpark will be competing with other major events when it comes to the fan travel experience.
Nine people were arrested outside the stadium last night for scalping tickets, D.C. police said. Two were arrested for vending without a license.
The Nationals host the Atlanta Braves tonight, the official opening game, and expect a capacity crowd of 41,888. President Bush has agreed to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN starting at 8 p.m. Gates will open at 3:30 p.m. Fans will go through security, so the team advises arriving early. South Capitol Street SE near the ballpark will close periodically when Bush is at the game.
Yesterday offered a good glimpse of what to expect at the publicly funded, $611 million stadium complex. Season-ticket holders and invited guests of the team got their first look inside and responded with enthusiastic oohs and ahs. The stadium was decked out in red, white and blue, its playing field immaculate and its concessions stands mobbed.
"At RFK, there was nothing else to see. It'll be nice to feel connected to the city," said Tom Gibson, who drove with his family from Alexandria and reported no trouble parking at his lot two blocks away.
"I think the getaway will be worse, when you put everybody on the road at the same time," he said as he eyed centerfield.
The post-game exit might be a bigger problem after tonight's home opener. With the game likely to go well past 10 p.m. and people facing work and school tomorrow, fans will want to leave fast and get home.
The Lerner family, which bought the Nationals two years ago and inherited the location of the ballpark, is hoping to draw fans early and find ways to encourage them to linger after games. The owners are seeking to entertain the crowds, entice them to spend money and ease congestion by spreading out the masses going to and leaving the ballpark.
Metro used $20 million in federal funds to triple the hourly passenger capacity at the Navy Yard Station, a block from the north side of the ballpark. When trains weren't crowded yesterday, it worked smoothly.
"It was a snap," said Lisa Gibney, who took Metro from Rockville. "I can't imagine coming any other way. You're steps from where you want to be," she said as she stood at the Navy Yard stop three hours before game time. But as trains grew crowded, waits grew longer.
Two hours before the game, Green Line trains at L'Enfant Plaza were so jammed that some fans initially couldn't get on.
"The biggest complaint is: 'There are not enough trains, and they are not long enough,' " said Ed Gray, 36, a systems engineer traveling to the game with his wife and parents.
When he and his family arrived at the East Falls Church Metro station at 2:30 p.m., the parking lot was full. They waited more than 20 minutes for a train and waited again at L'Enfant Plaza, only to watch where one train leave without them because it was full.
Another couple, Tom and Tiffany Bridge, who were both wearing Nationals caps, said they left their home in South Arlington at 2:30 p.m. but spent 25 minutes at the Court House Metro stop waiting for a Washington-bound train that was not completely full. When they managed to get one, it broke down at Foggy Bottom. They transferred to a second train and waited in a large crowd at L'Enfant Plaza for a third train.
"Great that everyone is taking public transit," said Tom Bridge, 29, a network administrator.
"But there should be some public transit," said his wife, Tiffany Bridge, a 29-year-old Web master.
Metro spokeswoman Cathy Asato said that the Navy Yard Station was very busy but that trains moved smoothly. "They weren't getting backed up, but they were full," she said. Asato said at least 9,900 people used the Navy Yard Station between 3 and 6 p.m.
Fans were urged to take Metro because parking near the ballpark is limited and nearby streets are narrow.
Yesterday, the roads seemed clear. In the hours before the game, traffic on M and South Capitol streets flowed with no sign of congestion. As the game began, District transportation spokeswoman Karyn LeBlanc said, "Traffic seems to be moving very nicely."
"It was good. You know, there was a little backup at the 14th Street bridge," said Fred Priester of Chantilly. "We left Oakton at 5 o'clock." And he was walking down M Street to the ballpark 15 minutes later. He said there was no problem or backup at his parking lot.
Even though fans were discouraged from parking on the street, some managed to do so.
"I'm a Washingtonian, so I'll find a spot," said J. Harrison of Northwest. He parked on Ninth Street just north of M Street SE. He said he thought his spot was not metered, although he might have a surprise awaiting him after the game.
The city has installed 120 meters in the neighborhood that take credit cards. Four hours costs $40.
The Nationals sold parking spaces for as much as $35 a game to season-ticket holders. Fans who did not purchase parking were encouraged to use a lot at RFK Stadium and take a shuttle to Nationals Park. The lot and the shuttle are free. Throughout the afternoon, it was easy to pull into Lot 8 at RFK, which had plenty of parking. More than a dozen motor coaches, dubbed "Nats Express," were lined up. As they filled, they headed out to Nationals Park, a 10-minute ride. Fans were deposited on M Street about four blocks from the ballpark.
"It's the way to go," said Dowell Muse, who drove from Leesburg with his wife, Leigh. They have been season-ticket holders since the Nats arrived in Washington and said yesterday's drive was as easy as it had ever been. "I'd say take the Nats Express."
Last night, spectators began leaving in the seventh inning, with the Nats ahead and the night getting cold. That appeared to ease congestion.
After the game, the Navy Yard Metro station had a high volume of people but little backup on the platform. A few blocks away, the line to get on the buses to RFK was a block and a half long at 9 p.m.
But Ray Walker of Northeast, who was standing in the line's midsection, said he'd only been waiting three or four minutes. "It's free, that's what I'm saying. . . . You're paying nothing, so you know, hey."
Staff writers David A. Fahrenthold, Jenna Johnson, Mary Beth Sheridan, Clarence Williams and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.