Sherwood's Notebook: An Opening Day to Remember

Fans by the thousands poured out of the Half Street SE Metro stop and down toward the ballpark.

They passed under the giant American flag hoisted by D.C. firefighters.

The sun was shining.

Hopes were brimming.

Beer was flowing and hot dogs were boiling.

There was even a big organ bleating "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The organist was Dick Smith of Baltimore -- yes, the home of that other team -- who told us he felt the Washington Nationals "could go all the way" this season.

Monday's home opener drew 45,274 paying fans, the highest ever for a regular-season Nats game.

Young star Bryce Harper electrified the ballpark with home runs in his first two at-bats. Pitching ace Stephen Strasburg threw seven quality innings. The Nats beat the visiting Miami Marlins 2-0.

So, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the season of promise for the Nats. The National League East champions are picked by many to make it to the World Series this year.

"It was a gorgeous day, a great game and you could not have started the season on a better note, all around," said Ward 2 D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans, who along with then-Mayor Tony Williams and Council Chairman Linda Cropp was a principal supporter of the ballpark. "The baseball experience has proven to be even better than I anticipated it would be. That's a success story."

None of the thousands of fans who passed by our NBC4 camera were complaining that the ballpark cost too much when it was built six years ago. No one was complaining that the national recession had slowed development around the ballpark. And no one was saying that Metro couldn't handle the crowds.

(OK, some people, including editors of The Washington City Paper, were grousing that beers in the stadium have topped $9.)

David Splitt, a lawyer and former District government official, showed up with his vintage 1960s jacket from the old Washington Senators team. He had a bit of trouble still snapping the buttons shut.

"It fits me," he insisted, adding, "My Woodstock T-shirt won't fit me anymore. This one will barely fit."

Known for his sharp sense of humor, Splitt told us that the baseball jacket was a little tight because "it has to go over all the excessive muscle I've gained through the years."

Now back to reality.

Restaurateur Bo Blair only got to peek at the game on television. He runs the wildly successful Fairgrounds just outside the center field gate. It's an expansive, undeveloped space that he leases and fills with beanbag games, bars and live music.

More than 6,000 fans were partying at one point in the space Monday.

Blair notices, like we did, that more and more fans are wearing Nationals gear rather than that of the Yankees, Red Sox and other more established teams.

"Yeah, that's probably one of the nicest things going on," Blair told us. "People are jumping on the bandwagon, getting behind the Nats. In the years past, the Phillies coming down, the Red Sox and the Yankees -- it was so many more of those fans in the stadium."

Blair, who sponsors the food truck festivals (known as Truckeroo) at the site, is the owner of several local restaurants. He likes what he sees with development starting to pick up in the ballpark area after the last recession.

"Five years ago, when we started out, it was incredibly desolate down here. A wasteland," Blair said. "Year by year, we're really getting a lot of new businesses on board. A few new restaurants have opened a few blocks away."

The restaurant chain Gordon Biersch has just opened at 100 M St. SE near the ballpark. It's been packed since a soft opening last Friday.

The ballpark is in the Capitol Riverfront Business Improvement District, which is also promoting new housing and retail for the area south of Capitol Hill and along the Anacostia River. The area has about 40,000 daytime employees, including the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

If you look carefully, you're seeing a whole new city being built along the Anacostia and up the Washington Channel in Southwest, where $2 billion in construction will soon transform the waterfront.

(Full disclosure: Your Notebook has been an owner in Near Southwest since 2007.)

Baseball didn't bring all of this development. But the winning Nats are adding rocket fuel to development plans in the area. It's a real team, and it's helping to make Near Southwest a real place in the minds of the rest of the city.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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