- The Washington Times - Friday, July 21, 2006

There was cannon fire, the U.S. Army Chorus and an American flag that covered the outfield. Washington Nationals players greeted fans at the gate and waved to fans in the crowd. Fans tried out the new crab cake, the new beef brisket and the new cheesesteaks. It was not a typical atmosphere for a baseball game in late July.

And that was the whole point.

This was a new beginning for RFK Stadium, the first game in a highly touted “grand reopening” weekend designed to introduce the Nationals new ownership to the Washington fan base, and open a new chapter in the history of baseball in Washington.

The announced attendance was just more than 35,400, a crowd surpassed this season only by the home opener and three games against the Yankees in June. The team reported more than 4,000 in walk-up sales. The players rewarded the fans, old and new, with a 7-6 win over the Cubs.

“It’s so exciting,” said incoming Nationals President Stan Kasten, wiping his brow with a bright red rally towel. “I’m proud of everyone. I’m proud of the ushers; I’m proud of the players who came out to greet fans.”

As a breathless Mr. Kasten roamed the concourses, he was approached by scores of fans — some of them wearing visiting Chicago Cubs blue — wishing the team well. Ted Lerner, the normally reserved patriarch of the Nationals new ownership group, also shook hands, handed out free baseball caps and chatted with fans as they entered RFK’s main gate.

Bill Spencer of Clifton was one of the fans greeted by Mr. Lerner.

“I just said, ‘Thank you for all that you’re doing,’ and that we really appreciate it,” said Mr. Spencer, who shares a season-ticket plan with three friends. “He asked us to stick with him for a little while. I think it’s great that they’re out here.”

The Lerners and Mr. Kasten made pains to approve the appearance of RFK, a 45-year-old relic in its penultimate year of useful existence. Seats and aisles in the stadium were cleaner than they’ve been in years, thanks to a heavy dose of steam and power washing. Landscaping at the main gate offered a chance for fans to take pictures before entering the ballpark, and a “Fan Fest” on the nearby Armory Mall gave life to the stadium’s surroundings.

The new ownership group, which is expected to take over any day, has been at odds with city officials over the development of the Nationals new ballpark, scheduled to open in 2008. But their visibility injected a jovial atmosphere around the park that rubbed off on stadium staff, according to several fans who purchased food and drink. No doubt, a pregame pep talk to stadium staff from members of the Lerner family didn’t hurt, nor did the inaugural footrace of costume presidents. (George Washington was the victor, thanks to a blistering final 20 yards.)

“People seem a lot nicer,” said Jerry Podorski of Chesapeake Beach, Md., as he sipped a beer with friends on the 500-level concourse. “Things just seem a lot better. There’s only so much you can do in midseason, but they’re making strides. And we know it will only get better.”

Not that the stadium was free from criticism for the night. Fans cringed at paying $30 for a baseball cap, $9 for a margarita and $6 for a Corona, and the continued lack of funnel cake was a sore point for some. Getting around RFK, with its maze of ramps and tight concourses, was still a challenge for newer fans, despite some new signage.

Concession stands also ran out of some popular food items midway through the game. And about a half-dozen new food options — provided by Aramark at the urging of the Lerners — were seen as overpriced, but most fans at least appreciated the new variety.

D.C. residents Aaron and Jackie Epstein, along with their friend, Herman Koenig of California, Md., were among the first to test offerings at the new terrace food court on the mezzanine level overlooking the main gate. The beef brisket from Capital Q was a hit.

“It’s delicious,” Mrs. Epstein said, as she wiped barbecue sauce from her chin. Mr. Epstein pointed out that a similar sandwich could be purchased at Oriole Park at Camden Yards for less.

While chatting amicably about the Nationals struggles, all three said they noticed the upgrades to RFK’s appearance, but said they weren’t blown away.

“That’s cosmetic, and it’s nice to have,” Mr. Epstein said. “But it doesn’t substitute for a good ball team.”

Mr. Koenig chimed in: “But it’s a lot better than the alternative we had been living with, which is no team.”

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