A baseball monument for the DC: Washington opens Nationals Park Print
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Thursday, 27 March 2008 12:19
MLB Headline News

 WASHINGTON (AP) -The man most responsible for bringing baseball back to the nation's capital stood on the front row of the bleacher seats beyond right-center field, his right hand on the railing, a blue Washington Nationals cap on his head and one of his trademark bow ties complementing his tan trench coat.
Before him lay one of his biggest legacies, Nationals Park, where the sounds on a beautiful sunny day included a lawn mower traversing the outfield grass and the pounding of hammers in the upper deck as workers rushed to finish work before opening day.
``It's like looking from the top of a mountain after a really hard climb,'' former District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams said. ``There's a real sense of accomplishment.''
Co. turned baseball into hardball during the relocation of the Montreal Expos, then-Mayor Williams did the unpopular thing and kept playing, convinced he was doing the right thing for his city. After negotiations that twice nearly derailed the grand plan, baseball now has a secure home in Washington: a 41,888-seat riverside ballpark with dark blue seats, cherry trees beyond the left field wall, a view of the Capitol from the upper deck and a glass, steel and concrete design in keeping with the city's historic monuments.
The stadium has a dress-rehearsal exhibition game Saturday and its coming-out party Sunday night, when the Nationals host the Atlanta Braves in the National League opener. President Bush will throw out the first pitch.
``There ought to be two balls thrown - by the president of the United States and the former mayor that got this done,'' said Mark Tuohey, the former chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission who took part in many of the baseball negotiations. ``This is Tony Williams' baby.''
Added Williams: ``I would never say that.''
No one knows better than Williams the many twists along the road that led to Nationals Park. The Expos needed to be moved, but Major League Baseball wanted someone to foot the bill. Washington was a natural choice - a major metropolitan area without baseball since 1971.
But some lawmakers and more than a few citizens howled when Williams crafted a plan for the city to build a $611 million stadium. After all, the area's other recent new sports facilities - a stadium for the Redskins, an arena for the Wizards and Capitals - were paid for mostly by the team owners.
Williams contends the benefits will outweigh the cost. The money to pay off the bonds is already coming in faster than expected. The blocks around the ballpark are an unsightly mess as developers, much as they did for the downtown arena, rush to turn a neglected area into a vibrant part of town. Even Pope Benedict XVI is on the way, having scheduled a Mass at the stadium during his D.C. visit next month.
``It's another monument on the road of the district's recovery,'' said Williams, who returned to the private sector after his second mayoral term ended in 2007. By then, voters had ousted several stadium supporters from the D.C. Council.
Many critics, including current Mayor Adrian Fenty, have no choice but to support the stadium now. Still, detractors say the city's final tab will be significantly higher than the $611 million cap. And there are doubts about fan support.
The Nationals had an average attendance of 33,728 during their first season at RFK Stadium, a decent but hardly overwhelming turnout from an area supposedly craving baseball after 33 years without it. By last year, the average dropped to 24,217, with the team's losing record and antiquated RFK cited as factors.
Now, there can be no more excuses. Sure, there will be big crowds this season as everyone checks out the new place, but will they keep coming back?
``We'll always get the attendance we deserve,'' team president Stan Kasten said. ``And as we build this product, both the team and the stadium, we will get it up. We will become one of those cities that has the big crowds every night, there's no question about it. Whether that happens right away now or not, I can't predict.''
Actually, fans might have one built-in excuse for avoiding the stadium. Getting there could be a hassle.
A lack of parking means the Nationals are asking car-addicted surburbanites to take public transportation. Many of those insisting on driving will have to sit on a bus anyway, taking a 2-mile shuttle from the RFK parking lot. In a move borne of inspiration or desperation, the new ballpark will offer valet parking - for bicycles.
Once everyone is inside, the asymmetrical stadium - 370 to right-center, 377 to left-center - promises to be a joy for all, from the huge scoreboard for fans to the huge, oval-shaped locker room for the players, who had to put up with the cramped quarters of RFK for three seasons while the new place was being built.
``We didn't think the fans at RFK were bad,'' third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said, ``but it was just as bad for them to come watch a game at RFK as it was for us to play there. ... Everything about RFK was so old and beat up and run down. We won't miss it, I guess you could say that.''
Williams is confident that any early hiccups, such as the parking problem, will work themselves out, and the city will be proud of the new landmark along the Anacostia River.
``For someone who really wasn't officially a politician, underestimated as a political leader, I got a lot done, so in that sense there is a lot of vindication,'' Williams said. ``That's a nice thing about being a mayor - you can do things and see them finished.''
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AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich in Viera, Fla., contributed to this report.
 

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