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In Signature Style, Lerners Strive To Make Ballpark Fan-Friendly

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By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008

If fans entering Nationals Park for the first time tomorrow feel like tourists, then the Lerner family will have accomplished what it set out to do: Create a new attraction in the nation's capital.

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The owners of the Washington Nationals, determined to place their signature on the $611 million baseball stadium designed and paid for by the city, have used every opportunity to link the ballpark to iconic Washington.

They planted cherry trees along the left-field wall, changed a beer stand's name to the Beltway Bar -- complete with decorations fit for a presidential inauguration -- and highlighted the city's baseball history with a flag commemorating Washington's only World Series win, by the Senators in 1924.

The Lerners hope to attract large ballpark crowds, starting with tomorrow's exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles, and get them to spend money by drawing on three decades of experience developing some of the region's best-known malls and office centers.

They have installed an enormous flat-screen television just inside gates on the north side that will show players on the field before the game, allowing fans to ask them questions. A few steps away will be a children's area, with a jungle gym and PlayStation 3 zone. And a full-service restaurant will overlook center field.

Every element of decor, including handcrafted masonry behind home plate, historic baseball posters and paint color, was a careful Lerner decision.

"We were given a great footprint, but the place didn't have a personality," said Mark Lerner, son of Bethesda real estate magnate Theodore N. Lerner, who heads the ownership group. "That's what we've tried to do in the past months, give it personality."

Mark Lerner, who has taken the lead on the ballpark planning, said the family has spent more than $50 million on upgrades, which include a high-definition scoreboard.

By the time the Lerner group bought the team for $450 million two years ago, the city had selected the 21-acre site for the ballpark and signed off on the main architectural plans. The day after Major League Baseball selected the Lerners as the team's owner, they held the groundbreaking ceremony for the ballpark. Family members began traveling to most of the other stadiums in the country and started to map out what they could add to Nationals Park.

Some things were small, aesthetic touches, such as planting flowers behind the outfield wall and putting a decorative scrim on the back of the scoreboard. Other changes were more prominent. The Lerners upgraded plans for the Red Porch restaurant, which will offer full table service and overlook the outfield, a trend hitting some big ballparks.

Nationals President Stan Kasten pushed for the restaurant and is working on pregame entertainment.

Sunday's season opening game against the Atlanta Braves will feature a Dixieland band, face painting for children and the chance to watch batting practice. The Lerners are planning similar events before other home games. At 47-year-old RFK, where the Nationals played for three seasons, fans had little to do except watch the game and little to spend their money on.

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