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A Ballpark Begins Its Inning

Players, Fans Get a Taste of Washington's New Stadium in Warmup Game

nationals park
Saturday's exhibition was a warmup, a chance for about 3,000 fans to try out seats, buy food, use restrooms and, most importantly, see what baseball looks like in a ballpark built just for the sport. (Bill O'leary - The Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008; Page C01

Cleats tore into Kentucky bluegrass, balls thudded into catchers' mitts and organ music echoed over the seats. Fans munching hot dogs cheered the guys on the field playing baseball at the new Nationals Park for the first time.

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And even as the matinee between George Washington and St. Joseph's universities was underway, a crane lowered a sign outside the ballpark and construction workers in hard hats pounded away in the upper decks. They were racing to get the place ready for the Nationals season opener a week from today against the Atlanta Braves.

The game was a warmup, a chance for about 3,000 fans to try out seats, buy food, use restrooms and, most importantly, see what baseball looks like in a ballpark built just for the sport. And what they learned is this: After years of political debate and turmoil that almost caused Major League Baseball to pull out of Washington, the city has a stadium that seems just about ready for prime time.

Sitting behind home plate, there was little to see that didn't look finished. One set of concession stands and a restaurant were still being worked on. But all 41,222 seats are bolted in place. The scoreboard's screen swirled with a montage of statistics and pictures and video replays, without a glitch.

Even Mother Nature seemed to take kindly to the day. Despite some early sprinkles, the sun glowed as D.C. Washington sang the national anthem. His face filled the scoreboard as the video boards in the stadium flashed flourishes of stars and stripes and photos of the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial.

"This is a moment," Nationals President Stan Kasten declared. As the singer finished, Kasten said, "Baseball has a theme of romanticism running through it. It's the national pastime for a reason, and the pace defines it."

There's no doubt that this is a distinctly Washington home for the national pastime. In addition to the videos' patriotic influences, the seats are blue and red and sit against a pale limestonelike finish that evokes the feeling of a giant flag.

"You know what I love? It's not named anything commercial. I like that," Katie Cook said. That won't last forever; the Nationals have not yet sold naming rights.

"It's not quite as beautiful as Camden Yards," said Cook, who came with her parents, who are GWU alumni. "But it has a funky feeling like RFK, funky in a good way. It has some spit and humanity to it."

Not everyone would call RFK Stadium a funky place. Nearly 50 years old, the place was, well, not exactly a choice venue to watch a baseball game. But the architecture at Nationals Park is deliberate. Unlike so many redbrick ballparks that have followed Baltimore's lead, Nationals Park reflects the federal architecture of the city with smooth concrete and a memorial-like quality.

"I'm very pleased," former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said of the ballpark's look. "I really pushed for something that gave a sense of place."

And it has a democratic sense as well.

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