- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

Even before Ryan Zimmerman lofted a walk-off home run last night in the first regular-season game at Nationals Park, fans were feeling good about the night.

“It was perfect,” Logan Klenwecks, a nonprofit worker from Reston, said seconds before the game-winning shot sent the sellout crowd of 39,389 home. “No complaints except for the cold.”

Indeed, it was in the mid-40s most of the game, and the Nationals’ bats were equally chilled by Atlanta Braves pitching for most of the game until Zimmerman came through. But last night’s game was less about winning and losing as much as taking in the experience of the new ballpark.

“You can’t beat it. It’s fantastic,” Larry Caudle, an attorney from Alexandria, said as he took in the view from the Red Loft bar in center field. “I like everything to do … out here. The outfield to me … standing out there and watching over it, it’s just beautiful to me. It’s got beautiful view lines.”

Gates opened at 3:30 p.m. yesterday, nearly five hours before Nationals pitcher Odalis Perez threw the first pitch. And fans came in droves, most of them through the center-field gate at Half Street. Outside the stadium, the street was decorated with red-and-white balloon arches. Once they passed through security, fans were greeted by the famous Racing Presidents characters and a jazz band. Many turned to the right to sample a half-smoke from Ben’s Chili Bowl. Others made a left to the Strike Zone entertainment area, while others headed up the steps to the Miller Light Beer pen or Red Loft bar.

“Everyone’s so friendly,” Roxane Adler Hickey said as she sipped a beer with her husband, Bob, inside the Red Porch restaurant. “When we came in the gate, actually, the women who were collecting the tickets were dancing and jumping around.”

As expected, the evening did not go off without some snafus. The appearance of President Bush led to long security lines as fans entered the park, and fans complained of large crowds and lukewarm food at many concession stands.

But for most fans, this was no comparison to RFK Stadium, the Nationals’ previous home.

“We were up in the caverns of RFK,” said Mike Johnson, a teacher from Waldorf, who attended the game with his wife, Courtney. “This is beautiful. It’s very bright.”

Dave Dale, a real estate agent from the District, said he was “holding his breath” when he got his season ticket, hoping they would provide him the same view he had at RFK.

“These are the same price, and they’re just about the same seats,” he said from his seat in the second level behind home plate. “It’s gorgeous. The view of the field even from way up here is great.”

The wide-open concourses, the massive scoreboard, the restaurants and food generally got rave reviews.

“When you’re focused on the field, it looks just the same,” said Caudle, who has season tickets in section 320. “But it’s the surroundings. You go to the bathroom, you go to the restaurants, that’s where it makes a difference. But it’s just going to be great. It’s going to be a great place.”

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