Nationals anticipate heading home
New ballpark awaits players after spring finale in Viera
VIERA, Fla. -- At around 9 p.m. ET on Thursday, a new era in Nationals history will begin. After they arrive at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, the Nationals will be bused to Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., and tour their new home.
The players are already excited about the stadium, because it has state-of-the-art facilities in the clubhouse and a beautiful field. That's something they couldn't say about Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, the place they played for three seasons.
"It feel great, man," manager Manny Acta said. "It's very exciting. All we have seen are all the pictures and the promos and all that. I can't wait to get in that new stadium and learn our way around it."
The Nationals will have their first workout at the stadium on Friday evening and then will play their first game -- an exhibition affair -- on Saturday evening against the Orioles.
Sunday night is the big day, however, when Washington plays its first regular season game at Nationals Park against the Braves. President George W. Bush will throw out the first pitch before the game gets underway.
"After being in Florida for a month and a half, we are excited to go to Nationals Park," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We are going to take the same approach as we did last year. We'll just try to hit the ball hard and, hopefully, the park will make a difference. I think we have a better lineup than we did last year."
Outfielder Austin Kearns was arguably the biggest victim of spacious RFK, hitting .228 at home compared to hitting .301 on the road. Many in the Nationals' hierarchy consider Kearns the second best player behind Zimmerman and the team is looking for better results from Kearns at the new stadium.
To his credit, Kearns didn't use RFK as an excuse for his lack of production. He simply said that he wasn't getting he job done.
"I think it will help," Kearns said not too long ago. "I don't think it's -- by any means -- a hitters' park, but I think it will be pretty fair to pitchers and hitters."
By all the reports, the field is supposed to be neutral, but general manager Jim Bowden believes that the stadium will favor the pitcher, based on a batting practice session the Nationals had last September.
"It's not going to be a hitter's park, like Philadelphia or in Cincinnati," said Bowden. "It's not going to be a pitcher's park, like RFK. I think it's going to be a balanced park that leans toward the pitchers. I don't think any of us is going to know until we actually play ball there."
The players are not the only ones who will benefit playing in a new stadium. Bowden is happy the team is at a new stadium. If revenue goes up significantly at the park, then the payroll will go up. It will convince quality free agents to play in Washington.
"Our ballpark attendance is going to start going way up. As revenue goes up, so does payroll. They go hand-in-hand," Bowden said. "When the players come and see the ballpark, they will want to play there. There is not a better city in the world to play baseball than Washington. So you have the greatest city in the world, the greatest ballpark in the world and the revenue is going to keep flying upwards. It's the place to be."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.