Nationals Park

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The first fan arrived at 6 a.m. so he could get a $5 ticket. The Atlanta Braves arrived at 2 p.m. so they could learn all the nooks and crannies. The president arrived a few hours later so he could throw out the first pitch.

It was a historic Sunday of learning and exploring at the grand opening of Nationals Park, the new $611 million home of the Washington Nationals.

"It wasn't about money,'' said 54-year-old Chuck Shouey of Alexandria, Va., who arrived more than 14 hours before game time to be first in line to get one of 400 upper-deck tickets for a five spot. "It was about being either in or out, and we wanted to be in.''

Once the gates opened at 3:37 p.m., fans took in an immaculate, 41,888-seat stadium with an open layout, dark blue seats and a mammoth high-definition scoreboard that reinforced the unmistakable fact that this is a ballpark built in the digital age. Those in the upper deck soaked in views of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, while some on the concourse peaked down at the Anacostia River.

Another of the ballpark's signature features wasn't ready for prime time. The cherry blossoms planted beyond the left-field bleachers aren't yet in bloom.

By the time the fans were let in, the visiting team had done something unusual. The Braves took a full infield-outfield workout with cutoffs and relays - probably the only time they'll do it before a regular-season game this year - to familiarize themselves with baseball's newest ballpark.

"You go out early and get yourself acclimated to the playing surface and the different angles for an outfielder and the wall,'' center fielder Mark Kotsay said. "And you go about taking groundballs during batting practice, see how the ball rolls, how it carries into the gap. You take a little bit more time in batting practice.''

Kotsay predicted at least one left fielder this season will get fooled when a ball hits the funny angle in the wall near the bullpen in left-center field, and he wasn't happy at all when he realized that the bullpens sit behind chain-link fences.

"Chain-link fences should be banned in a major league stadium outfield wall,'' Kotsay said. "It's dangerous. You've got a lot of risk for injury if you stick your cleat in there. I know a lot of fields have it, but it's not a good surface to put out there.''

Kotsay offered a compliment players around the league will love to hear. He said the vast visitor's clubhouse was nicer than the home team's clubhouse in some other ballparks.

Of course, there were glitches, as might be expected at a grand opening. Shouey, the first fan in line, said the Nationals had told him the ticket window would open at 10 a.m.; as of 3 p.m., it was still closed. He said several fans who arrived early gave up and left.

Shouey also learned quickly what the Nationals have been preaching for weeks: There's virtually nowhere to park in the area without the threat of getting ticketed or towed. The team is hoping to educate fans about the joys of public transportation, but Shouey parked his car in the neighborhood and hoped for the best.

"I'm hoping the car will be there after the game,'' he said.

Some fans took advantage of a shuttle bus from the Nationals' previous home, RFK Stadium, while those who arrived by subway were welcomed by a red-carpeted Half Street festooned with red, white and blue balloons and a barbershop quartet.

The decorations couldn't hide the fact that the outside of the stadium still looks like a construction zone, dominated by cranes and unsightly fences, as developers rush to build restaurants, shops and hotels next to the new ballpark.

Parking is such an issue that Nationals president Stan Kasten said his wife took the shuttle bus.

Couldn't he get her a parking space?

"No,'' Kasten replied. "They don't exist.''

Sunday's game had an additional logistical hurdle. With President Bush in attendance, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs were inescapable. Neighboring streets were to be closed near game time to allow the presidential motorcade to arrive, adding to more confusion and congestion for those who drove.

With the start of the game approaching, some fans became upset as they stood in a line some three blocks long. Those near the front said they had been waiting for about two hours to get into the ballpark and began chanting, "This is a disgrace.'' Police eased the tension by moving some of the fans to shorter lines elsewhere around the stadium, and the seats were close to full when President Bush made the ceremonial first pitch. The paid attendance was announced as 39,389.

Bush was greeted with jeers and cheers as he was escorted onto the field by Acta and Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. He quickly dispatched a high and slightly wide pitch, forcing Acta to stand up to catch it.

The official first pitch was thrown by Nationals starter Odalis Perez at 8:21 p.m. It was fouled back by Braves leadoff hitter Kelly Johnson. The last pitch came at 10:43 p.m., when Zimmerman won the game with a home run in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 Washington victory.

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