- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

You get the feeling Washington Nationals team president Stan Kasten wanted to give a personal tour to each of the several thousand people who came yesterday to watch the first baseball played at Nationals Park.

“This is a really exciting day,” said Kasten, who clearly has been drinking too many five-hour energy drinks. “We are watching baseball players on our field at Nationals Park.”

They weren’t Nationals players, but the kickoff of baseball at the D.C.-financed, $611 million ballpark had a special feel to it — an Atlantic 10 college game between George Washington and Saint Joseph’s. And as a dress rehearsal for next weekend — when the Nationals take the field — it was a success.

Here are the answers to some trivia questions:

First pitch at Nationals Park — GW’s Eric Cantrell, a local kid from Oakton.

First hit at Nationals Park — GW’s Charlie Kruer, who also scored the first run at the ballpark. He was driven in by Sean Rockey, who had the first RBI at Nationals Park.

“It is such an honor to play the first game here for our team and for myself,” said Kruer, whose team came away with a 9-4 win. “To be lucky enough to get the first hit here is a blast. I will be telling my kids about this and everyone else for the rest of my life about this.”

Washington financier Russ Ramsey, a former standout for GW’s baseball team, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

“It was one of the most amazing moments that I could imagine in my sports life,” Ramsey said. “I grew up three miles from here, played baseball at GW and want to thank the Lerner family and the people at GW for this. It is very special.”

It’s ironic as well: Ramsey was initially part of the group led by Bill Collins (another former player at GW) that sought to bring baseball to Northern Virginia, then later joined the Fred Malek group.

Enough of the ironies and trivia questions, though. Here are some observations about the ballpark and how it played in its maiden baseball effort:

The most interesting thing was the wall behind home plate. One wild pitch that got away during the game hit the wall — made of jagged blocks, with various angles available — and bounced right back quickly to home plate. The potential is there for the ball to carom in different directions and will make base running on such plays an adventure.

Kasten said he called general manager Jim Bowden immediately after seeing how the ball came off the back wall to let him know it will be a factor here.

The wind was blowing in throughout the game in between the two parking garages.

The batter’s eye seemed strong with a green center-field backdrop that seemed to make it easy to pick up the ball. Based on the 13 runs scored yesterday, batters had a pretty good look at pitches.

The center-field plaza, where most people will enter, is impressive with a lot of space and activities and a great view of the field as you come in. And the Racing Presidents are everywhere, including in the future part of a “Build A Bear” shop. Many of these amenities, like the Red Porch bar in center field, have the Lerner family signature on them.

“Everything that was added by the Lerner family — the fan upgrades, the amenities, things to make the park feel uniquely D.C. and convince fans to come early and stay late and have an even better time than just coming to watch baseball in your seat for nine innings,” Kasten said. “We want a park experience to be a lot more than that.”

It looks like it will be quite the park experience, and given the fouled up process the ballpark went through — developed and planned without an owner in place — it is remarkable it turned out as well as it did. Every ballpark process is messy, though, and the District should use the ballpark as proof to the business community that things can get done in the city.

There is a new Washington Hall of Stars banner, not quite as large as the one at RFK Stadium but still prominently displayed on the side of one of the parking garages and visible to everyone in the ballpark.

The Presidents’ Club, to accommodate the big spenders behind home plate, reeks of power and has one particular asset that likely can’t be observed in any other ballpark — the indoor batting cages can be seen from the club behind a glass wall, as well as the interview room, where the postgame press conferences will be.

The 4,800-square foot HD video board presents amazingly sharp images.

Mike Wallace, the Nationals’ clubhouse manager, flew up from spring training yesterday to get his first look at the new clubhouse and plan for the players’ arrival later this week.

“The players will be impressed, especially considering where they came from,” he said.

That is a key ingredient to the Nationals Park experience. People have special memories of RFK Stadium, but to get the full fan experience at the new park, remember the experience at RFK the past three seasons — the cramped concourses, the barely audible audio system and what passed for concessions. It will make Nationals Park that much sweeter.

And if you are fortunate enough to have tickets for Sunday night’s opener, look for owner Mark Lerner, who said he may be discreetly watching from an undisclosed location just to see the reaction of the fans when they enter Nationals Park for the first time.

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