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A 'Storybook Ending'

Homer Gives Nationals a Memorable Close to $611 Million Stadium Opener

The Washington Nationals open their new stadium in Southeast D.C. with Sunday's regular season opener against the Atlanta Braves.
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By Dave Sheinin and Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 31, 2008; Page A01

No grass was ever greener than the Kentucky blue that spread out across the field at dazzling new Nationals Park last night. No popcorn ever smelled so delicious. No beer ever tasted so refreshing, no hot dog so juicy. The senses were overloaded and overwhelmed on an Opening Night unlike any ever witnessed in these parts -- in a $611 million, taxpayer-built palace in a formerly blighted part of the District, in front of a national television audience.

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And no roar ever washed over a building like the one that built and soared and then exploded from the crowd of 39,389 as the final pitch of the night arrived from the mound and landed, following a mighty swing from Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, over the wall in left-center field, a walk-off home run that gave the Nationals a dramatic 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves and provided a fitting end to a memorable night.

"Storybook ending," said Mark Lerner, the Nationals' principal owner. "It was the end of a perfect day. You can't write a script like that."

It was Zimmerman, the 23-year-old face of the Nationals franchise, who was awarded the task of handing the ball before the game to President Bush, who, at 8:13 p.m. strode onto the field to a near-equal mixture of cheers and boos, climbed the pitcher's mound and threw the ceremonial first pitch -- a ball, high and tight -- into the glove of Nationals Manager Manny Acta.

Moments later, after the Nationals had taken the field, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), a stadium opponent when he was a member of the D.C. Council back in the days when there was still some doubt if the structure would ever be built, gave the traditional call of "Play ball!" And finally, the ball was given to veteran pitcher Odalis P┬┐rez, a Dominican left-hander whose rise from unemployed journeyman six weeks ago to coveted Opening Night starter epitomizes the Nationals' land-of-opportunity roster.

And as the first pitch was thrown, flashes from thousands of cameras went off across the stands, fans capturing the moment that signaled baseball in the nation's capital had arrived at its permanent home. It was 8:21 p.m., and it was strike one.

Nationals Park, as it is known for now -- until its naming rights are sold -- made for a beautiful and elegant debutante, its alabaster outer walls an echo of the District's many famed monuments, its closest seats, priced at $325 apiece, near enough to the field to hear the players' grunts, and its highest ones affording views of the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument.

"Beautiful park," Bush said in the ESPN broadcast booth after throwing out the first pitch. "I'm real proud for the city. This is going to be great for Washington."

The fans braved biting cold (49 degrees at game time and dropping fast) and the unfortunate consequences of a presidential visit (metal detectors, bomb-sniffing dogs and Secret Service agents), that led to waits of up to 90 minutes to get into the park at some gates.

But fans reported few problems reaching the stadium area. Despite fears about heavy traffic, thoroughfares such as South Capitol Street and M Streets SE were not heavily backed up at 6 p.m. Larry Buck, 61, of Northwest Washington took a cab from Dupont Circle and said the trip took perhaps 15 minutes. "I mean, there was no traffic," Buck said. "It was beautiful."

Stadium-bound fans said the Metro trains were crowded as game time approached, but reported little trouble getting to the ballpark. Similarly, fans who came by car and parked at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium -- the Nationals' former home -- and rode a special shuttle to the park also reported few problems.

All afternoon and evening, they came. Down Half Street SE, from the Navy Yard Metro stop, bundled up against the cold that hit them at the top of the escalators, moving along a formerly anonymous and seedy stretch of asphalt. They walked under arches fashioned of red, white and blue balloons, and past a pair of protesters dressed as President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The protesters shouted anti-war slogans into a bullhorn and waved signs that said, "Boo Bush."


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