Nats' new stadium going smoothly

Nats' new ballpark going smoothly

WASHINGTON -- It's a construction site now, but in 18 months, the Washington Nationals will be playing baseball there.

The new stadium that's rising in southeast Washington, about two miles from the Capitol, has met the expectations of those responsible for building it.

"We're on schedule," said Allen Lew, the chief executive officer of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. "We're on budget. We expect to have the ballpark up and ready in time for the spring of 2008."

Ground was broken on the yet-to-be named ballpark on May 5, and according to Lew and the builders, they're actually a day ahead of where they should be. The first steel was installed late last week.

"The building is taking shape. It's literally rising out of the ground," Lew said.

When the stadium is complete, there will be 41,000 seats -- 22,000 of them in the lower bowl. On a tour conducted on Wednesday, portions of the lower bowl were already visible. According to the architects, HOK Sports, who have worked on 25 of the 30 Major League Baseball stadiums and 30 of the 32 of the National Football League stadiums, more than half the fans will be able to reach their seats without using elevators, ramps or stairs because the field is 24 feet below street level.

Many decisions have already been made. The Nationals' dugout will be on the first-base side, and the bullpens won't be on the field. Players who have complained about the cramped conditions at RFK Stadium will find a clubhouse about twice the size of the one they've used for the past two seasons. Besides a sizeable visitor's clubhouse, there will also be two indoor batting tunnels and pair of auxiliary locker rooms.

Construction officials are pleased with what's been done so far. "It's just a remarkable achievement in terms of real progress," said Alan Petrasek, Projective Executive for Clark/Hunt/Smoot. While they're happy, there's still much work to be done.

Over the next several months, concrete will be poured and, during the next nine months, much of the heavy construction will be done.

"It will go quickly. It will be like an Erector Set," said Matt Haas, the senior project manager of Clark/Hunt/Smoot. The excavation of the field will begin on July 1, 2007, and a year from now, the turf will be installed.

Around 300 workers begin their construction day at 7 a.m. ET six days a week, and they'll work through the winter -- there are contingency plans should weather be harsh.

"Our steel erector has already agreed that he will shovel snow to keep that erection moving," Petrasek said.

One of the remaining issues is making sure there are enough parking places. RFK Stadium has about 10,000 spaces, and the new ballpark will have many fewer. Currently, there are plans for 1,225 spaces, and Lew admits that constructing the required parking in time for April 2008 may be tough.

"We need to start that yesterday," he said. "We think there's still a window that where we can get it done and completed on time."

The Lerner family, which purchased the club from Major League Baseball just two days before groundbreaking began, has been heavily involved in the construction.

"There are design changes all the time, but we're not going to to make any changes that will jeopardize the April 2008 opening," Haas said.

Rich Dubroff is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.