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Future distinctly on rise for Nationals

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals' unfinished, $611 million stadium exists largely in the mind's eye.

It's a steel-and-concrete repository for imagined home runs, cotton candy not yet made and summer nights to come.

Remember, Baltimore, when the Camden Yards gates slid open 15 years ago and giddy fans literally raced around the concourses examining their shiny new toy?

That's the Christmas-morning feeling Washingtonians are anticipating as they begin to catch their first glimpses of Nationals Park, due to open in April 2008.

"Just remember what we've gone through trying to get baseball here, and the cost of the ballpark, and remember that Washington had baseball and then it didn't," said Chartese Burnett, a Nationals vice president who grew up in the area.

After such a turbulent ride to get a team, Burnett said, the city is going to breathe a giant, collective sigh of relief when the new park opens. "It's going to be like 'Wow, this has been a long time coming,'" she said.

The team has been giving stadium "sneak peeks" to VIPs and fans, a process that continued last night at a reception in a just-opened office building overlooking the stadium. The building was developed by Lerner Enterprises, the Bethesda firm founded by team owner Ted Lerner, and is part of what District of Columbia officials hope will be a rebirth of the Anacostia River waterfront area.

A year after District officials completed the modern design, cranes hover overhead and the stadium is taking shape. The lower bowl is done, the concourses are up, and much of the upper-deck steel is in place.

Incomplete are many of the details that will give the stadium its distinctively "Washington" character. These include cherry trees to be planted in a plaza beyond the outfield meant to echo the trees that famously bloom each spring along Washington's Tidal Basin.

There are other Washington-specific design touches. The stadium concrete is a particular shade to evoke the limestone used in federal monuments and buildings. The architect and the city are even toying with the notion of designing the stands to vibrate the way RFK Stadium shakes when fans stamp their feet.

"At RFK that [shaking] wasn't something that was done deliberately," said Allen Lew, chief executive of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission. "It occurs because that section of stands is movable and it's kind of springy. It's kind of a cute feature to replicate if we can do it so there's not a structural flaw."

RFK, once the home of Washington's long-departed Senators baseball team and its Redskins football team, is the interim home of the Nationals until the new stadium is built. The Nationals, the former Montreal Expos, are in their third season here. Major League Baseball approved the team's move to Washington only after the city agreed to pay for the stadium after a protracted debate.

Don Plavnick, an ardent Nationals fan, participated in one of the new stadium tours recently and said his impression was: "This is a true baseball stadium. It's remarkable how, especially for Washington, it's on time and on budget."

Plavnick, from Arlington, Va., attended the opening of RFK Stadium in 1962 and its "re-opening" when the Nationals arrived in 2005. "I'll be psyched to see the new one open," he said.

The stadium may not wield a bat or carry a glove, but club executives are counting on it to be the team's biggest star, and they've already made it the focal point of their marketing.

"Certainly a lot of what we're doing from a marketing standpoint is directed at 2008 because we want people to be on board," Burnett said.

Burnett and other club executives hope the stadium can do for Washington what Camden Yards did for Baltimore, although the two stadiums look nothing alike.

The new ballpark is to be among a generation of facilities built smaller than their predecessors. While Camden Yards seats about 48,000, Washington's stadium off South Capitol Street will seat just 41,000. It will be in line with its recent contemporaries, such as Pittsburgh's PNC Park, which seats about 38,000, and Houston's Minute Maid Park, which holds just under 41,000.

The new stadium is to have large glass panels and an open-air feel.

"You can be anywhere in the concourse and still see the game," Lew said. "And you can see the Capitol from the upper deck. Ironically, the less expensive the seats, the more access you have to view the Capitol."

With its deep power alleys, RFK is known as a pitcher's park. That has suited the Nationals, who aren't a power-hitting team.

Team president Stan Kasten said last night that the new stadium "will be somewhere in the middle. I don't like the excesses of real hitters' parks - the bandboxes - or the real pitchers' parks. It'll play fair."

The stadium is to feature a unique clubhouse. Instead of a square or rectangle, the locker room is to be oval-shaped.

There are two reasons. One is that the designers figured a clubhouse without corners meant that players wouldn't be able to hide and might congregate more. Another is to evoke the symbolism of the Oval Office, the most famous room in the White House.

"Oval means a lot in this town," Lew said.

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