- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 29, 2008

The ball connected off Ryan Langerhans’ bat, made a beeline for center field and soared over the 402-foot mark that denotes the deepest corner of Nationals Park.

It was only a few minutes into last night’s first batting practice session, but it was obvious that the Washington Nationals’ new home is nothing like their old home.

“The first home run, over dead center field,” pitcher Jason Bergmann said. “Fittingly, seeing that was the disputed thing about RFK.”

Indeed, few if any players could hit the ball over the center-field fence at spacious RFK Stadium. So it’s safe to say Nationals Park passed its first crucial test last night when the home team worked out in its new digs for the first time.

Over the course of 90 minutes, the Nationals tested every facet of the ballpark. Outfielders corralled balls that bounced off the fence in every direction. Infielders charged ground balls that skipped off the Kentucky bluegrass turf and onto the dirt cutout. And hitters drilled the ball to every part of the field, trying to gauge where the ball flies farthest and where it gets knocked down.

The final consensus: Everything went just fine.

“It plays just like any other new field, which is good,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “The grass was a little long, but I’m sure they can cut it down to whatever we need. The infield dirt’s fine. It feels like it’s going to play well.”

The Nationals will get a more thorough opportunity to test their new park out tonight when they host the Baltimore Orioles in a 6 p.m. exhibition game. An intentionally limited crowd of about 25,000 season-ticket holders and workers who helped build the stadium will watch for free, testing the place out themselves in preparation for tomorrow night’s nationally televised opener against the Atlanta Braves.

Before those games, though, the club wanted to conduct one early-evening workout, hoping to get a better sense of the ballpark’s quirks.

Sports business reporter Tim Lemke and architecture critic Deborah K. Dietsch talk about the pros and cons of the new baseball stadium’s design.

Video by Peter Lockley, edited by Christian Fuchs

Team officials hadn’t had many opportunities in the past to test the field out, but theories abounded about how the wind would affect the flight of fly balls. Some wondered whether the two parking garages beyond the left-field fence would create a wind tunnel, as was often the case over the past month.

“I’ve been here every day in March,” team President Stan Kasten said. “We had a windy March. If the stadium plays like it played in March, no one’s ever hitting a home run out of here.”

Sure enough, when players took the field last night, the conditions were just as Mr. Kasten predicted.

A steady wind blew in from left field, swirled around the park and then blew out to right field, making it easier for left-handed hitters to launch tape-measure home runs than right-handed sluggers who were aiming directly into the breeze.

Not surprisingly, the first home run was hit by a lefty, Langerhans, who sent the ball to straight center field and drew a mild ovation from onlookers when it cleared the fence. Langerhans, who did not make the final 25-man roster but was invited to participate in tonight’s game before leaving for Class AAA Columbus, also hit the most-impressive homer of batting practice: a towering shot down the right-field line that landed in the second deck above the Washington bullpen.

The right-handed hitters did have their moments. Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes each blasted several balls into the left-field bleachers. But several hitters seemed to struggle trying to push their drives through the breeze.

“I don’t think the wind is going to blow in every single day from left, or at least I hope it wouldn’t,” Zimmerman said. “But it’s too early to tell anything. You need a month or so to see what’s going to happen.”

The Nationals don’t expect to have much of an edge over the Orioles tonight or Braves tomorrow just because they’ve gotten a sneak peak at the ballpark.

“It takes at least a week,” manager Manny Acta said. “I guarantee you, we won’t have a home-field advantage on Sunday right off the bat.”

No, but that won’t diminish the sense of pride the Nationals will feel when they emerge from their dugout tomorrow night in front of a sellout crowd of 41,888 and christen their new home.

“I think it’s just great to have a park that’s ours: the Nationals and only the Nationals,” Bergmann said. “RFK was the Senators, was the Redskins. It was a lot of other people’s stadiums. It never really felt like it was ours. This is ours. It’s got our name all over it.”

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