- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2005

The cold, raw weather would have befit a late-season Redskins game. Construction dust was everywhere. The batting tunnels beneath the stands remained flooded after Saturday’s heavy rain. Sausage vendors ran out of buns.

But problems and all, 44-year-old RFK Stadium yesterday received a warm reception for the Washington Nationals’ exhibition game, the team’s first appearance in its new home.

A crowd of more than 30,000 braved the chilly, blustery weather to see the Nationals’ 4-3 loss to the New York Mets, an attendance figure boosted considerably by walkup ticket sales even after play began at 12:07 p.m.

Paid attendance was 25,453; stadium construction workers and area youth were given free tickets.

Much remains to be done before the Nationals return for their April 14 home opener. District officials, Nationals executives and fans declared themselves pleased with the 120-day, $18.4 million transformation of RFK from a dusty old relic.

“This is an unforgettable experience, seeing a home run here at RFK, the whole crowd,” said District Mayor Anthony A. Williams. “This day is a new chapter in our city’s history. This was something of a shakeout game to see where we are, but I’m very pleased.”

Many attendees, some of whom had not been to RFK in years, were surprised by many of the stadium’s new elements, including the playing field installed just three weeks ago, a bulked-up offering of concessions and souvenirs and new scoreboards along the upper deck facade.

“You look around and consider where they were even a month ago, it’s simply amazing,” said Jerry Burkot, spokesman for American Baseball Capital, the William Collins III-led group seeking to buy the Nationals from Major League Baseball. The group purchased 53 season tickets. “This is very impressive.”

Most of yesterday’s crowd was huddled in RFK’s lower bowl, with large swaths of empty seats in the yellow-seat upper deck sections above the outfield wall.

The day began with a first pitch from Williams, who received a standing ovation for his efforts to bring baseball to Washington rather than for his weak throw. The exhibition was billed as “the mayor’s game,” with proceeds, estimated in the low six figures, going to the Nationals’ charitable foundation.

D.C. Council chairman Linda W. Cropp, who last fall imperiled the relocation deal with several amendments to financing legislation for a new ballpark in Southeast, was the target of a fervent chorus of boos. Williams called the booing “unfair.”

Other projects at RFK still to be finished before next week’s home opener include installing TV monitors in the clubhouses and press box, fixing the drainage issue in the batting tunnels and improving the hot water flow to the clubhouse showers.

Nationals players had their own minor complaints, including insufficient dirt on the bullpen pitching mounds and an awkward lip between the field mound and infield grass.

“We’re still 85 percent of where we need to be,” Nationals president Tony Tavares said. “There’s just a ton of little adjustments to make. Nothing overwhelming. And we certainly don’t have the level of cleanliness that I want, but we’ll get there.

“There’s obviously been a tremendous amount of work done to get to this point. We just need to finish it out.”

With the exhibition over, work began immediately on converting the RFK field for soccer. D.C. United plays Mexican team Pumas UNAM in the first half of the CONCACAF semifinals Wednesday.

The leading elements of that process include retracting the pitchers’ mound with a hydraulic platform and shifting a large section of seats along the third-base line to accommodate the soccer field dimensions.

Most field conversions planned for this season will take between 48 and 72 hours.

“I think it was a remarkable job to get this place ready,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “I can’t say enough about the field. We have no complaints. I tip my hat to the crew.”

• Staff writer Mark Zuckerman contributed to this report.

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