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Nationals meet and greet at the new ballpark

January 30, 2007 12:50 am

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Nationals outfielder Nook Logan (center) and pitcher Mike O'Connor (right) try to envision a pristine ballpark inside the steel-and-concrete frame being erected in southeast D.C. A mild winter has allowed construction to continue on schedule for a 2008 opening.

BY TODD JACOBSON
BY TODD JACOBSON

WASHINGTON

--The skeleton of the Nationals' to-be-completed stadium loomed over Ryan Zimmerman's shoulders and a huge crane hung overhead as Washington's third basemen stood on a patch of dirt somewhere between South Capitol and First streets.

He took a few swings with a bat, guessing where home plate might if the stadium opens on schedule in 2008.

"It's not hard to imagine," Zimmerman said, gazing around the rising ballpark. "You look around and you start to see a stadium. It's exciting."

The Nationals' $611 million stadium was certainly still a work in progress yesterday as Zimmerman, outfielder Nook Logan and pitcher Mike O'Connor toured the construction site and briefly visited with construction workers during the final day of the team's 12-city winter caravan.

But it wasn't hard to see a stadium rising amidst the steel, concrete and dirt.

Steel work started in October, and the bowl of the stadium is now clearly discernible, with the frame already stretching as high as the upper concourse behind home plate.

A tunnel leading to home plate is visible from the infield, and the cutouts for both dugouts hint at the ballpark the site will eventually become.

What will eventually be the infield of the ballpark--and where Zimmerman was hoping home plate might be--was littered with debris, workers and cranes, but in just more than 14 months, the area will look very different.

Thanks to a mild winter, progress has been quick and the ballpark is on schedule to be completed for opening day 2008, said Ronnie Strompf, Clark Construction's senior project superintendent.

With little snow, wind and rain have been the only weather factors holding up construction of the stadium. High winds temporarily halted steel work yesterday morning.

"Right now we don't see any real hitches," Strompf said. "It looks like we are going to continue on track here and we are dedicated to doing that. We've got contingency plans if we need it, but hopefully we don't need it. We will play baseball in 2008. We are looking forward to it."

Construction began May 5 on the 41,000-seat stadium, and by the time it's done, team officials are hoping to unveil a state-of-the-art ballpark that fits with Washington's monumental architecture.

Plans for the stadium call for an exterior of glass and limestone-like concrete--a look very different from the red brick retro baseball stadiums built over the last decade and a half.

As fast as the stadium has already risen, work will accelerate in the next few months.

Strompf said approximately 100 workers will be added to the crew of about 375 already at the site as electricians, plumbers, drywall fitters and other tradesmen begin to transform the guts of the stadium into a livable home for the team and its fans.

Steel work, including the lighting standards and a canopy over the upper concourse, is scheduled to be done by July 4. That's when the field will be graded. By October, the turf on which the Nationals will play is scheduled to arrive.

"The weather has been very good to us," Strompf said. "We've been very lucky."

Zimmerman and his teammates looked on with interest at the workers milling around the stadium yesterday, donning hard hats for a brief overview of the ballpark.

As Logan walked onto what will eventually be the playing surface, he wondered where center field was and joked that he hoped the unfinished outfield walls would stay that way, so he'd be able to use his speed to hit home runs.

O'Connor gazed at where he thought the pitching mound might end up.

"It's starting to look like a stadium," O'Connor said. "It's definitely coming together. It's coming up a lot faster. I guess it's only a year away from being ready so it's got to be far along."

Zimmerman had actually visited the stadium with Nationals catcher Brian Schneider several months ago. Much had changed, and this time, Zimmerman could truly see the team's new home taking shape.

"We like RFK Stadium but to have a brand new stadium that's going to be only ours and only for our fans to come watch just us is pretty cool," Zimmerman said.

Todd Jacobson: 540/735-
Email: 1974tjacobson@freelancestar.com





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