- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

This time last year, people within the Washington Nationals organization were uptight. How would they pull off the first major league baseball game at RFK Stadium in 34 years? Would the entire operation implode? Could the game even be played?

This year, mercifully, the tenor is a little more relaxed.

“Last year was really chaotic, but this year is a little more fun,” said Chartese Burnett, the Nationals’ vice president for communications. “There’s a different level of excitement.”

Officials believe many fan complaints from last season, ranging from poor food service to a sad-sounding public address system, have been resolved.

And officials hope the ticketing problems seen at the March 31 exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles won’t happen again. A switch in distributors from Ticketmaster to Tickets.com left some fans unable to print their tickets at home or stadium kiosks, causing long lines at teller windows.

“Someone from Tickets.com was here all week,” Burnett said. “They have assured us that everything will work.”

Whether fan excitement will reach last year’s level remains to be seen, however. Fans clearly were turned off by a long battle between Major League Baseball and the D.C. Council over the Nationals’ new ballpark, coupled with a controversial spring training for the team. As of late yesterday, about 9,000 of RFK’s 45,000 seats were unsold.

“Frankly, the excitement has worn off a little bit, the newness of it, and knowing that it’s 162 games, 81 games at home,” Nationals manager Frank Robinson said. “It’s enough [games] to see over the course of the season.”

The organization might be bailed out by nature. Today’s forecast calls for sun with temperatures reaching the low 70s. Burnett said that should trigger high walk-up sales, with a total attendance topping 40,000.

Though parking is plentiful near RFK Stadium, club and city officials recommended that fans take Metro to the Stadium/Armory station and walk about six blocks to the stadium. Metro will be offering a free shuttle from RFK to Union Station after the eighth inning, and before the game it will run occasional express trains on the Orange Line between Metro Center and Stadium/Armory, stopping only at L’Enfant Plaza.

Gates to the stadium open at 11 a.m. today, but festivities around the ballpark start at 8 with the opening of the Nationals team store. Fans can pick up and purchase tickets beginning at 9, and the team will hold a “FanFest” on the Armory Mall at 10.

Fans attending games at RFK this year will notice a few upgrades to the facility, thanks to about $4 million spent by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. There are no illusions that the 45-year-old stadium can shine, but fans will notice a change in cleanliness, officials said. Seats in the lower bowl have been repainted, and the tops of the dugouts have been repainted with new advertisements.

“We’re not investing a ton of money into RFK, but we’re making significant improvements to the cleanliness of the stadium, and fans will notice that immediately,” Nationals president Tony Tavares said.

The playing field should be in better shape, too. To improve drainage, Tavares said groundskeepers in the offseason dug more than eight inches to find drains that had barely been touched by water because of the density and clay content of the soil. New dirt and grass will allow water to flow off quickly, and the infield will have a slight pitch, allowing water to roll away instead of forming puddles.

In addition, the Nationals have rebuilt the pitcher’s mound, making it stronger and more able to withstand the repeated pounding, and the stadium’s sound system has been upgraded.

“Most of these changes are what we learned from last season and things we knew we needed to do to have a successful second season,” said Allen Lew, the sports commission’s chief executive officer.

But the biggest change to the ballpark experience will be the food service. After a season filled with complaints, food provider Aramark hired more experienced staff and worked with the team to eliminate efficiency problems like broken and crowded elevators. Two new kitchens were added, and the menu has been upgraded.

New concession choices include Papa John’s Pizza, Boardwalk Fries and paninis, with a “District of Chicken” stand featuring nothing but chicken. Aramark also built a “Red Hot and Blue” barbecue restaurant in the 300 level overlooking the third-base foul pole. Other new offerings include a hot dog stand with signature franks from other ballparks and jumbo pretzels and peanuts.

“Some of this is very unique to RFK,” Aramark spokesman David Freireich said. “We wanted to give fans some local fare.”

One of those fans will include Vice President Dick Cheney, who will throw out the first pitch. Nationals catcher Brian Schneider, who caught a pitch from President Bush at last year’s home opener, will repeat the assignment.

“I don’t know [the vice president’s] history,” Schneider said. “It’s going to be tough to beat. Bush has got a pretty good arm. I’ll have to get the scouting report on [Cheney].”

Staff writer Mark Zuckerman contributed to this article.

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