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Sun Sets on Weekday Afternoon Games at Nationals Park

By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008

It's a Monday and the Nationals are to be on the diamond against Milwaukee this afternoon at Washington's new ballpark. The weekday daylight game is a rarity this season -- and scheduled only because it's Memorial Day and there will be no evening rush clogging South Capitol Street when the game lets out.

Because of concerns about parking and traffic congestion around Nationals Park, there will be no more weekday baseball matinees in Washington. Fans no longer can sneak out of work or school for a few illicit hours of pleasure at a game once known as a "businessman's special."

Go ahead, look at the schedule. Gone.

"You're right," moaned Charles Krauthammer. A Nationals schedule is pinned to the bulletin board of his downtown Washington office, but he hadn't noticed that weekday games are reserved for nights until a reporter called for his reaction.

"Those are the great games of all time," said the syndicated columnist and baseball fan. "It's a terrible thing."

Before the installation of bright lights. Before prime-time games and ESPN dictates. Before expensive suites and $7.50 beers, baseball was played mostly in the sunlight. Sounds amazingly retro now, doesn't it?

"When I was in the ninth and tenth grade, I played hooky from school and just went to the ballgame. I only did it a few times, but it was fun," said Arlington County lawyer and baseball historian Frank Ceresi. "It kind of allowed you to do something to the left of center."

A friend, Arlington family court Judge George Varoutsos, said: "It was almost like you could do it on your lunch hour and get back to the office before 5 o'clock. I did that once last year."

Many big league cities still have those weekday afternoon games. You can find them in Philadelphia, Denver and Chicago, among others. Or, closer to home, go to Baltimore at 12:35 p.m. Thursday, July 24 and see the Orioles play the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Nats had the games, too, when they played at RFK Stadium.

Last year, they played weekday afternoon games against the Florida Marlins (won), the Philadelphia Phillies (lost), the Atlanta Braves (won), the Pittsburgh Pirates (lost) and the Houston Astros (won) -- a winning record.

But the new ballpark, an edifice hugging the Anacostia River, is scrunched into an urban neighborhood in Southeast. It is helping revitalize a once-forgotten, blighted area. But the location has meant changes.

Most fans have heard the worries about possible traffic jams and warnings about potential parking shortages. Fearing the worst, team executives and city officials advised taking Metro or biking or walking to games.

And, quietly, this year's schedule was adjusted so that fans would not try to park amid the slowly burgeoning neighborhood's workday, then spill out of the ballpark just as the daytime denizens of downtown Washington began their treks home to the suburbs.

"We love afternoon weekday games but had to hold off this year due to the uncertainty about daytime parking availability," Nationals President Stan Kasten said. "We'd certainly like to have more next season, but no decisions have been made about '09."

This being Washington, full of work-loving Type A personalities, not everyone is unhappy about this year's end of the afternoon weekday game. And truth be told, not a few bosses probably mind, either. Even many fans who like the games know they also need to hold on to their jobs. For many season ticket holders, these were games they had to give away or not use because it was impossible to get away from work.

"I found I would always waste those tickets," said Jeff Martin, a lawyer in Washington and longtime baseball fan who shares Nats season tickets even as he roots louder for his hometown Minnesota Twins.

But self-employed and devil-may-care baseball fans say there is nothing better than a weekday under the sun, watching a game.

"There's a difference between a Saturday day game and a Thursday day game. The Thursday day game was a little secret among all 26,000 people there," said Matt Mendelsohn, a Virginia photographer who works a lot of weekends and can make his own schedule. "It's a part of baseball lore. Businessman's special. That moniker is a great throwback.

Today's Memorial Day game "doesn't count because everyone will be there. The beauty of the businessman's special was they were sparsely attended. The playing hooky factor was off the charts for everyone there," he added.

Mendelsohn is part of a ticket group that includes Bethesda lawyer Dan Farrington and another self-employed fan. "We all fought for those" weekday afternoons, Farrington said.

As Farrington put it, "The experience is enhanced by the feeling that you're getting away with something."

Parking around the ballpark has not been as difficult as many had feared. Even on Opening Day, the only full house for Nationals Park this year, traffic moved easily. (On the other hand, it was a Sunday night.)

That has fans of weekday afternoon games hopeful that their pleasure will return.

"I think they panicked. They ought to reconsider whether or not traffic is sufficient enough reason," Krauthammer said. He suggested that the Nats change the schedule in September and move a weekday evening game to the afternoon to give it a try.

After all, where else can you watch something as wholesome as baseball and, as Krauthammer said, still feel like "you were cheating on your boss, you were cheating on your teacher, you were where you weren't supposed to be."

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