- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

Last night was more than Opening Night for the Washington Nationals’ fourth season. It was the start of a new era in the local sporting scene. After three years of residence in timeworn, shabby RFK Stadium, the Nationals officially opened their shiny new home to a full house and rave reviews.

Not only that, the game lived up to the surroundings as Ryan Zimmerman hit a dramatic, solo home run with two out in the bottom of the ninth to give the Nationals a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves. It was the first run since the first inning for the Nationals, who had lost a 2-1 lead in the top of the ninth.

Before the game, flashbulbs popped, giant American flags unfurled, F-16 jets performed a flyover and President Bush threw out the first pitch to a mixed reception of cheers and boos as brand new Nationals Park came alive on a chilly evening, just 22 months after construction began.

Wearing a red Nationals jacket, Mr. Bush took the mound as he did before the first home game at RFK Stadium in 2005. But the surroundings were far more posh this time as he tossed the ball — it would have been high and out of the strike zone — to Washington manager Manny Acta before escaping to the friendlier confines of the ESPN broadcast booth.

TWT Video:President Bush tosses first pitch

Then the Nationals took the field — lush, green turf with their script W mowed into the outfield grass. The real first pitch, a strike from Nationals left-hander Odalis Perez to Kelly Johnson, came at 8:21 p.m.

It was, of course, an evening of firsts.

TWT Video:Sights and sounds of Opening Night

Perez retired Johnson for the first strikeout.

The next hitter, Yunel Escobar, walked, becoming the became the first base runner at Nationals Park.

The first hit came in the bottom of the first inning from Nationals shortstop and leadoff hitter Cristian Guzman, a line-drive single to right off Braves starter Tim Hudson.

And Nick Johnson, the first baseman who missed all of last season while recovering from a broken femur he suffered in September 2006, drove in the first run, a double that scored Guzman. Johnson then scored on Austin Kearns’ single, giving the Nationals a 2-0 lead.

Veteran Braves third baseman Chipper Jones hit the first home run. It came off Perez with no one on base in the fourth.

The game was played before a national cable-TV audience and a crowd likely larger than the listed stadium capacity of 41,888. Both the Braves and the Nationals have their share of talented players, but the new ballpark, built along the Anacostia River in Southeast at a cost of well in excess of $600 million (almost all of it publicly funded), clearly was the star attraction, at least until Zimmerman poked one over the fence in left-center field to win the game.

“I tell you, I don’t have any words to describe it,” Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner said, standing on the field before the game with the massive scoreboard and giant high-definition screen in right-center field providing the backdrop. “I really don’t. It’s amazing.”

The gates opened at 3:30 p.m., nearly five hours before Perez’s first pitch. Impressions seemed immediately and strongly positive. One fan talking on his cell phone was heard to say “awesome” several times.

And it wasn’t just the fans. “I like everything about it,” Acta said. “You just can’t compare it [to RFK]. It’s top of the line. It’s exciting to come to work every day here.”

Referring to the protracted political bickering that nearly halted financing of the stadium, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said, “This was a saga that seemed to go on forever, particularly to people here. But when you walk in a ballpark like this and see all the emotion and realize everything that went into it … . It is a great story, one that I am proud of.”

The snazzy environment was a bold contrast to the Nationals’ tired old ballpark, which was completed in 1961 as D.C. Stadium and served as the home of the Washington Senators, the Washington Redskins and its current and only full-time inhabitant, D.C. United.

Several fans who had attended games at RFK echoed Acta.

“It doesn’t compare,” said Nicole Lamore of Northeast. “I’ll always have a soft spot for RFK. I liked it, but it doesn’t compare.”

Said fan Rob Black of Northwest, who was with Miss Lamore, “This is a home run for D.C.”

Yes, he really said that.

Ms. Lamore and Mr. Black were standing beyond the outfield seats in an area called the “Strike Zone,” one of several entertainment options other than the game itself that all the modern stadiums have. There were two batting cages, where fans could select a pitcher they wanted to face on a video screen located exactly 60 feet, six inches away. The life-size pitcher wound up and threw and a real baseball magically sailed on its way to the batter.

“This is going to be wonderful for D.C.,” Mr. Black said. “There’s so much to do. Not a bad seat. All the vantage points are great.”

Sitting with his son, Thomas, in Section 228 in the right field upper deck, John Lechler pointed out the tip of the Washington Monument that could be seen through one of the light towers. The upper levels behind home plate and extending down the foul lines afforded a full view of the Capitol dome.

“We just took a little tour. It’s beautiful,” said Mr. Lechler of Ashburn, Va. “It seems like anywhere you sit in the stadium, the view is going to be good.”

Then there was the food. Lots of food, all kinds, sold from locations with such baseball-themed names as “Change Up Chicken,” “Frozen Rope,” “Grand Slam Grill” and “Senators Sausage.”

Fans complained long and loudly about the food at RFK. Not here.

“This is a lot better,” Paul Stark of Falls Church said after devouring most of a sausage sandwich.

Nationals President Stan Kasten, whose exhaustive input largely resulted in the amenities and the look of stadium, extolled its virtues. He was as excited and animated as a kid with a new toy.

Which pretty much is what the ballpark is.

“This is clearly the grandest, largest, most elaborate sports venue, public gathering venue in the most important city in the world,” Kasten said, sparing no hyperbole.

But, he was reminded that FedEx Field, where the Redskins play, is larger. Much larger.

“I’m not talking about FedEx,” Mr. Kasten said. “All I can do is talk about this.”

Many others were doing the same thing.

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