- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

The air was crisp, the beer flowed and the seats offered a view of something unseen to Nationals fans until last night: a new ballpark, built only for baseball, built only for Washington’s team.

Season-ticket holders got their first glimpse of Nationals Park at an exhibition game between the Nationals and Baltimore Orioles won 3-0 by the Nats, while city and club officials toured the ballpark at a frenzied pace to see how it operates with thousands of fans inside.

“We can now get a sense of how we did,” said Matthew Cutts, the chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, who oversaw construction of the project. “You can feel the excitement. You can watch the fan reaction and it’s great, just great.”

Last night’s exhibition was for season-ticket holders; a full crowd of nearly 42,000 is expected for tonight’s regular-season opener against the Atlanta Braves.

“The night was great,” Nationals President Stan Kasten said. “I know that because fan after fan kept telling me that.”

For most fans, it was their first time inside the ballpark, and most took the time to explore the wide concourses, the Strike Zone entertainment area and platforms offering a wide view of the stadium.

“This is nice. I like this” said James Crim, a federal government worker from the District, as he sipped beer at the Red Loft bar beyond center field. “You can come up here and look around and see everything.”

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  • Nationals Park was built in 22 months — a record for a Major League Baseball stadium. Officials from the sports commission and Clark/Hunt/ Smoot construction team were honored in a pregame ceremony that featured fireworks. A more extensive ceremony featuring President Bush is planned for tonight’s game.

    “Given the time factor, I think they did a great job,” said Chuck Grant, a maintenance worker from Montgomery County. “I like the way it’s structured.”

    Before the game, fans came by the hundreds down Half Street SE from the Navy Yard Metro Station, which Metro recently expanded to accommodate 15,000 fans an hour. Crowds flowed from the station, but there were still some hiccups in the system, partially caused by the large number of people traveling into the District for the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Massive crowds at the L’Enfant Plaza station necessitated the addition of trains heading south on the Green Line. On at least one occasion, a train inadvertently drove right through the Navy Yard Metro station, leaving scores of Nationals fans stunned and confused.

    “Glad they have tonight to work out the kinks,” one fan said.

    Some fans tested the Capitol South Metro Station several blocks to the northeast of the stadium and reported no problems.

    “There’s nothing along the way that’s scary or anything,” said David Hayes, an air-cargo manager from Dale City, Va. “It was totally fine. It’s a neighborhood in transition, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it shapes up, because it’s going to be good.”

    While crowds flowed to the ballpark, there were also some logjams inside, particularly at concession stands selling locally based menu items. The line at the Ben’s Chili Bowl stand along the third-base side was more than 100 deep at times, and the area around the PNC Diamond Club was particularly crowded.

    Meanwhile, some fans complained of high food prices and cold food. At least one fan said she ordered a sausage but was handed a hot dog instead. And inside the PNC Diamond Club, there was confusion over pricing issues, with several fans complaining about receiving charges for items that should have been included in the price of their ticket.

    “We’re working out some kinks, but that’s what these events are great for,” said Chris Benevuto, general manager of stadium concessionaire Centerplate, from inside the PNC Diamond Club restaurant. “This gives us an idea of how the stadium works. We’re going to get stocked back up again and be ready for a great crowd [today].”

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