- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

Tomorrow night, when Nationals Park officially opens to a nationwide audience, everything about the Washington Nationals in the baseball landscape changes.

Last season when the Nationals opened the season, they were the joke of the major leagues, and not just for the product on the field. RFK Stadium may hold a special place in the hearts of Washington sports fans, but in the industry, it was part gulag, part comedy club.

Visiting players used to make fun of the antiquated facilities to their friends on the Nationals, and then therefore make fun of baseball in Washington as well. All they knew about Washington was, as team president Stan Kasten put it, “the mall at their hotel and RFK.”

Well, the joke’s over tomorrow night.

“This will remind them that this is the most important city in the world,” Kasten said.

Baseball came back to Washington in 2005, but after the novelty act wore off, it disappeared from the national picture, and in the nation’s capital, that isn’t easy to do. Stadium Costs

Sports business reporter Tim Lemke discusses the costs associated with the new Nationals Stadium.

Video by Peter Lockley, edited by Christian Fuchs

When there were references to Washington baseball, they were about a team with no owner. When they got an owner, the jokes were about a team that was destined to be among the worst in baseball history. And the jokes about the rusty bucket of a ballpark would resurface when the laughter over the roster stopped.

The players did all they could last year to stop the laughter with their inspired play, and a 73-win season became a victory of sorts over the predictions of epic failure. But then, inside the game, they were simply known as the spunky little team that still played in a dive.

No more.

“I think this year we’re not being portrayed as the joke of major league baseball anymore,” Nationals manager Manny Acta said.

He was referring to the 2008 Washington Nationals, but the stage where these players will perform will go from a place of ridicule to a point of pride.

“It does a lot, especially not only for our team, but for the town,” Acta said. “For sure now baseball is going to be in D.C. for good. Having your own house, with more people in the stands, and closer to the action does a lot for the mental side of it.”

And it will have an impact beyond our borders. In the Dominican Republic, they will be watching with a sense of pride in Acta, the lone Dominican manager in the majors, as they did last year, when Acta made his debut. But the interest will be heightened by the new ballpark and all the attention it will be getting.

“The Nationals are a big part of the Dominican Republic, and the fact that our team has a better look will draw more attention down there,” said Acta, who is scheduled to catch the ceremonial first pitch from President Bush. “They will follow it, especially being in the spotlight, being the opening game in the states.”

Thursday night the players got a quick look at their new home after coming back from spring training, but last night they got to live in it a little bit, with their first workout. They feel a little bit better about being a Washington National now.

“Obviously if feels better to come here and play every day,” Austin Kearns said. “If I said no, I would be lying. This is an unbelievable place.”

Said Dmitri Young: “I think it makes us feel better. Last year, going into RFK, nothing against it, but everyone knew what it was. We walk here around like, ‘Wow,’ looking at it. This is our place, and if feels great.”

The personality of the ballpark has yet to be determined. The wind was whipping in from left field in between the two parking garages (up in the press box, it sounded like the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire).

Before batting practice, Kasten wondered whether the wind would ever go away. But players seemed to have little problem getting the ball out into the stands in batting practice, and they were still euphoric about their new home when they were done. They will get another glimpse tonight when they face the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition game, in what has been called the final dress rehearsal.

Kasten said they will have a staff meeting after the game, but this is it, baby. It’s showtime.

“We can play baseball,” Kasten said. “We can service 41,000 fans.”

And they can show the world that baseball is really back in Washington, and nothing to laugh at anymore.

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