Thursday, April 14, 2005

Directions to RFK: Driving | Metro

The day many baseball fans thought would never come finally has arrived — and not a moment too soon for frazzled officials of the District and the Washington Nationals.

The Nationals play their home opener tonight at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the first official major league game in the District for a D.C. baseball team since Sept. 30, 1971.

City and Nationals officials say the club and stadium are ready for the historic contest, but the work to make them so in the past month has been difficult.

• The Nationals scrambled in recent weeks to distribute tickets to anxious fans.

• The D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission completed a renovation of the stadium and managed a tricky arrangement under which the Nationals and D.C. United of Major League Soccer share the facility.

• City officials addressed a litany of transportation, parking and police demands for the Nationals games.

President Bush will throw out the ceremonial first pitch tonight, adding another layer of security and logistical complication. Fans will go through a screening similar to that conducted at airports, complete with metal detectors.

Stadium offices buzzed with last-minute activity yesterday, leaving executives anticipating the moment when preparation stops and play begins.

?It’s just an immense amount of detail we’re working through,? said Allen Y. Lew, the sports commission’s chief executive officer. ?It’s ticketing issues, cleaning issues, contractor issues, legal issues, concession issues. Nothing catastrophic, but a ton of logistics. The environment is very frenzied.?

Tonight’s game is a coming-out party for RFK Stadium, which underwent an $18.4 million renovation for baseball that was completed in just three months.

The sports commission benefited from several rehearsals in the form of an exhibition game by the Nationals on April 3 and two later soccer games. However, the final judgment on the stadium upgrade depends largely upon tonight’s game.

Nationals president Tony Tavares, working for months off a to-do list, stopped referring to his notes early this week as the intensity of preparations increased.

Delivery of tickets to hundreds of purchasers was delayed, a problem the club blamed on a lack of experience among staff members, fans seeking to change their seats and the heavy demand for tickets.

The Nationals sent out a written apology Saturday. Many members of the Nationals staff were drafted into a massive clerical effort to solve the problem last weekend, prompting Mr. Tavares at one point to jokingly refer to himself as the team’s ticket manager.

Mr. Tavares said the ticket issue and other major problems are resolved.

“I’m feeling generally ready. We’re now down more or less to other minor stuff, things like the bunting, a few changes in the batting tunnels, making sure all the service people are properly trained,” he said. “There are still few issues of concern, … but I think we’re under control.”

City officials, meanwhile, again encouraged fans to use Metro to prevent traffic bottlenecks from forming near the stadium and to avoid parking in nearby residential neighborhoods.

D.C. transportation officials said cars parked in neighborhoods without proper residential parking permits would be ticketed and towed. Stadium lots accommodate more than 8,000 cars; parking costs $10 in those lots.

Tonight’s crowd is expected to include a who’s who of Washington and baseball: members of Congress, city officials, business leaders, media personalities, prospective buyers of the Nationals and Major League Baseball officials, including Commissioner Bud Selig.

Not scheduled to attend are several D.C. Council members who oppose plans to build a ballpark for the Nationals in Southeast funded with public dollars. Ward 8 Democrat Marion Barry and David A. Catania, at-large independent, most notably, do not plan to attend.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who supported the relocation of the team to the city and the efforts to build a ballpark, urged the protesters to just enjoy the moment.

“They ought to chill out and just come out to the game,” Mr. Williams said. “We’re all getting so wrapped up in this stuff, like it’s some Shakespearean drama or something. They ought to just come.”

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