Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Matt Haas needs only to look outside his trailer at the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark to get a reminder that the days remaining to complete the $611 million facility are quickly dwindling.

“Tension is running high around here,” Mr. Haas, the Clark Construction project executive, said yesterday during a short break from overseeing the nearly 1,000 workers on the site. “But I think we’re in good shape. We’re literally working in every area of the ballpark right now to finish it on time.”

There are 66 days left until the Nationals open the new ballpark with an exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles on March 29. Opening Day follows the next evening, with a nationally televised game against the Atlanta Braves.

But much work still remains to be done, particularly on the portions of the stadium not immediately visible to passers-by on South Capitol Street.

“The bulk of it now is really getting the interior of the building done,” said Greg O’Dell, CEO of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which oversees the project. “I definitely think we’re going to be ready for Opening Day. Having said that, this is a large, complex project, and the proof will be in the inspection process. We have to be sure we’re turning over a safe building that’s going to be complete.”

In theory, baseball could be played at the new ballpark now. The field is in place, nearly all the seats have been installed, and team clubhouses and the press box are nearing completion.

Heavy work remains, however, on the concession and food-service areas, offices, control rooms and team store.

Construction workers also are starting the process of ensuring that electricity runs smoothly through all parts of the ballpark, from the massive outfield scoreboard to fans, air conditioners and cooking areas.

The team last month purchased more than 150 high-definition television sets to be installed throughout the stadium.

Meanwhile, hundreds of workers this month began pouring concrete and asphalt for sidewalks and plazas around the stadium, work that is expected to continue right up to Opening Day. Weather has been a hindrance — recent cold temperatures have made it impossible to do masonry work or lay concrete.

“Site work’s always one of the last pieces to get done,” Mr. O’Dell said. “I think we’re going to be good, but there probably will be some areas that we’re going to be finishing up very close to the end of the ballpark’s completion.”

The stadium must be labeled “substantially complete” before the Nationals can play in the new ballpark, a designation that would allow the city to issue a certificate of occupancy.

Mr. O’Dell and construction executives have been meeting weekly with officials from Lourenco, a third-party inspection company, to ensure there are no last-minute surprises.

Officials hope to get certificates of occupancy for some areas of the ballpark by next month, allowing food-service workers to prepare for Opening Day. There is no backup plan; RFK Stadium, which has housed the Nationals for the past three seasons, no longer has a playing field for baseball.

By remaining on schedule, the new ballpark is on track to be built in just 22 months, faster than any other stadium in Major League Baseball.

Moreover, it likely will be delivered under the cost cap imposed by the D.C. Council. Mr. O’Dell said the sports commission has $11 million remaining in contingency.

Mr. Haas and Mr. O’Dell acknowledged that some work on the stadium will continue even after the season begins.

A video board the Nationals requested be installed in center field may not be ready, and some areas will lack final coats of paint and finishes. Sculptures and other artwork will be midseason additions.

“I promise you that with two weeks left, in the middle of March, people are going to look at [the ballpark] and say, ‘I don’t see how it’s going to be done,’ ” Nationals President Stan Kasten said. “But it will be done.”

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