Nats hope to open new park with ease
Washington has history of snags when opening new stadiums
WASHINGTON -- Presidential first pitches, sparkling new facilities and the thrill of the new season? Sure, Opening Day in Washington offers all those things.
Half-completed stadiums, miles-long traffic jams and inadequate accommodations? Yes, that too.
The city that perfected bureaucracy has an Opening Day record that even the most generous politician would admit leaves plenty to be desired.
On Sunday night, the Nationals will try to pull off something that has never been done at a sports venue in Washington and open Nationals Park with no major snags. When the last construction shift leaves the park Sunday morning, they will be continuing a long tradition of last-minute construction.
The bad luck -- or misguided planning -- started with the construction of Griffith Stadium in 1911. The previous stadium, Boundary Field, had been destroyed by fire, forcing crews to work on an expedited schedule to ensure the District would not miss a season of baseball.
As the April 12 Opening Day approached, they had come close in that the cement foundation had been laid, but there were still no seats. The Washington Post described the makeshift seating arrangement.
"Temporary chairs will be placed on the concrete tiers of the new grand stand for the first two series, while those who patronize the pavilion, will have to sit upon wood," the newspaper said (it would be several decades before MLB.com hit the scene).
Accommodations were made for President William Howard Taft, who threw out the first pitch in front of a then-record 16,000 fans. They stayed after the ceremonies for an 8-5 Washington victory against Boston. When the team left on a road swing eight days later, construction teams came back in and finished the stadium.
Baseball's next stop was RFK Stadium, though the Washington Senators didn't bear the brunt of the problems there. The dual use football/baseball facility opened in the fall for the NFL's Redskins, and while the seats were all in place, they didn't get to that point until days before the game.
The Redskins experienced disaster again in 1996, when they opened FedEx field. Located in suburban Landover, Md., it was supposed to be immune to the problems of an inner-city stadium. Instead it just exaggerated them, with traffic jams circling the Beltway in the hours before the stadium's first game.
At RFK, known originally as D.C. Stadium, the Senators opened on April 9, 1962, with a special game to inaugurate the stadium, where they defeated Detroit 4-1. It was a one-game series, and afterward the team left on a road trip, something the current Nationals will also be doing.
Sunday will also mark the first sports venue opening in Washington since 1997, when the MCI Center -- now Verizon Center -- opened as a basketball/hockey/concert venue.
When the case was made to area politicians to create the $611 million Nationals Park, proponents cited the development that the Verizon Center has spurred: In its 10 years it has revitalized the Chinatown/Gallery Place area. The hope is that the baseball stadium will do the same for Washington's southeast neighborhood along the Anacostia.
But when the Verizon Center opened, concession-stand operators were unprepared for the rush, and hungry fans had no choice but to wait in long lines.
Transportation will be a key issue this time around, with the brand new Navy Yard Metro preparing for its first test -- officials say it can handle 15,000 fans per hour -- as well as a parking situation that includes shuttle buses from RFK Stadium.
Regardless of how those factors turn out, the team is already ahead of its predecessors in terms of getting the seats installed and the permits issued. The team has also confirmed that George W. Bush will continue a tradition of Presidential first pitches.
Fans looking at history as a predictor do have one reason to be optimistic: Washington has never lost when opening a stadium.
Michael Phillips is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.