Kasten appreciative despite whirlwind
Preparation for Nationals Park pays off as new home opens
WASHINGTON -- In the hours before the big opener of the big new Nationals Park just south of the U.S. Capitol, Nationals president Stan Kasten's cell phone kept ringing off the hook.First it was his wife, saying she was on a bus from remote parking in the lot surrounding Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, traffic was moving and she was only seven minutes away. "And she was very happy about it," Kasten said in the hours before his Nationals played his old club, the Atlanta Braves. Then it was Bob Hartley, who was the coach of the National Hockey League's Atlanta Thrashers when Kasten was the president of that organization, the Braves and the National Basketball Association's Atlanta Hawks, telling him to break a leg, but not literally. And finally, it was his son calling from Atlanta to wish Kasten good luck. All this during the course of a 13-minute interview. For Kasten, there were some smiles, but he had little time to enjoy the festivities. "My job description does not include enjoying things," Kasten said. "But I'm enjoying it nonetheless, kind of on my own." And so, for all the naysayers who doubted in 2005 that the Nationals would move into their new 42,000-seat ballpark by 2008, it's time to put those notions to rest. Kasten wasn't even with the ballclub, then owned by MLB, when he attended the opener at RFK on April 14, 2005. It was MLB's return to the District for the first time since the Senators fled to Texas after the 1971 season. After years of haggling, the D.C. politicos finally wrestled the Expos from Montreal, and the nexus of the deal was this $611 million ballpark on the banks of the Anacostia River, largely paid for by public funds. Kasten, who headed one of the groups trying to buy the club, was ultimately wedded to the Lerner family, whose $450 million bid was accepted by MLB nearly two years ago. By then, the ballpark was well under construction, and neither Kasten nor the Lerners had much input. The architectural process, after all, was conducted while MLB still possessed the franchise.
Still, Kasten, who is frenetic in the most calm of times, seemed like a man who was purveying all he could see on Sunday night."I am a proud papa who is worrying about his child's college education," Kasten said. "My immediate concerns are what my challenges are. But that's OK -- I am very proud." Immediate concerns? Long concession lines during the run-through exhibition game against the Orioles on Saturday night. "It was all-new employees in an all-new facility using an all-new computer system," Kasten said. "But that's fine. We've made adjustments overnight. We'll see how those go." Only about 1,200 on-site parking spaces are utilized by season-ticket holders, with Kasten eyeing another 5,000 more in the immediate vicinity for daily use "by the time we're done," he said.
|* -- Season shortened by work stoppage|
# -- World Series champions
"We don't have daily or paid parking, and I hope to have an announcement this week that we will have some for the next homestand," Kasten added. "But we don't have it done yet. The best thing I tell people is that if you're looking for a space, there are 57,000 metro parking spots in this city. Take your pick."Finally, the season-ticket base is at 18,000, up from the 16,000 who bought plans in 2007 during the last season at RFK, but down from the 21,000 who jumped on the bandwagon for the club's inaugural season in Washington. "We're still selling, and we're up about 20 percent," Kasten said. "Last week, I checked -- we're 11th in baseball this year. For a team where we are in the building cycle, I feel very good about that." There were other neat tweaks for the opener. The Nationals, for instance, took batting practice after the Braves so incoming fans could see them hit once the gates had opened. Usually, the visitors hit after the home team. Kasten, who had moved from the new spacious oval clubhouse to right behind the batting cage at this point, noted that it was a "one-time thing." But it's worth considering on a regular basis. Asked what had pleased him most about the circular facility with the deep blue seats, Kasten noted: "I loved the way the ballpark felt," he said. "People were at the railings at the restaurants and bars, relaxing and watching the game. And it was packed. It was a great look -- a great look. This was the way it was supposed to be designed. It was very nice." And with that, Kasten was gone -- to take another call and put out another fire, the proud papa prowling the ballpark again.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.