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The Breaking In of Nationals Park
2008-03-30 23:01
by Bob Timmermann

Reader Sam DC graciously wrote up a summary of his trip to the Washington Nationals first regular season game in their new stadium. The Nats beat the Braves 3-2.

Opening Night (US, Non-State Division)

Just walked home from the game to find an email from our host offering to post my thoughts on tonight’s Nationals season opener at [corporate name TBD] Park.

In some ways, I’m a bad person to comment because I belong to the small, weird clan of folks who miss RFK Stadium. It is easy to get to for people in the District (I could walk there or drive and park free close by) , or for people in most Maryland and Northern Virginia suburbs (it is right off the main arteries from both). It has wide, comfy seats, and lots of legroom. No luxury boxes means a great view from the really cheap upper deck. Concessions are limited, but I’m a sausage and a cheap beer guy, and they do those just fine. I like that it is named after RFK and had his bust outside. And in my limited time in DC, I’d already laid in some great memories at RFK. My older son became a baseball fan there; my younger went to his first game ever there. In 2005, the Nationals had an amazing first half run that captured the imagination of the City (40K crowds were near routine in June 2005) and provided me, a lifelong Dodger fan who has known more than one World Championship, with some of the best baseball times I’ve ever known. So while I understand that the District was compelled to build a new stadium in order to win the Expos, and while I get that the team will be much richer and (theoretically) better able to compete as a result, my needs were already met by the old ballpark.

So with all that throat clearing out of the way , what a wonderful night at the ballpark it was. (Washington Post take here. For one thing, just being in a sold out and buzzing ballpark was a special treat – there have only a few big crowds like that in DC since June 2005. Hopefully, the crowds will stay big, because that energy really does change the experience from enjoying a ball game to sharing one. It was also a fun night because, like many other fans, I went down very early to walk around the park. It might seem retty frivolous, but there was something special about being part of this big milling crowd all pointing out the same stuff at the same time. I even had a fine brush with greatness (famous for DC edition) entering the park and chatting with this guy and this guy. And the game itself sure didn’t disappoint, what with the emotional and basically triumphant return of Nick Johnson after his 18-month recovery from his broken leg and Ryan Zimmerman’s game-winning home run (which would not have been a home run at RFK stadium). If nothing else, the Nationals can rejoice that their ballpark opening didn’t get Kevin Elstered.

As for the park, it’s shiny and new, but I don’t really see anything too compelling about it. Certainly no defining visual feature like the Splash Cove at Phone Company Park or the Yellow Bridge at PNC or the Camden Yards Warehouse. There are apparently cherry trees in place, but they hadn’t bloomed yet and seem unlikely to make a major impact when they do given the shortness of their flower. No real sense of history at the stadium, despite some superficial efforts to include “Hall of Fame” banner around the main concourse (Why exactly does Nationals Park have a banner for Harmon Kilbrew?) The most interesting spot for me was the large outfield plaza, which ends in a railing where you can watch the game from over center. That plaza drops down into a low set of outfield seats, which makes those outfield seats seem somehow special and makes the overall entrance from that side somewhat arresting. Overall, the outfield seats are low and close compared to what my fuzzy recollection places at other parks. It also seems like the ballpark has a lot of different spots you can be when not in your seat and still see the game. Those options are nice for someone bringing kids who often need a change of scenery, and also work well for meeting up with friends – no more hunkering in the aisle talking to someone and trying to keep from blocking other’s views. In the same vein, there is a bar high up in center field (up on top of the full service restaurant out there) which is open to all ticket holders – you can see the game in front and (poking between the new development) the Capitol behind. Overall, these things are all well done, but again, there’s nothing really distinctive or special about them. This is what new ballparks have. (I failed to take any pictures, but some are here.

I expected to be overloaded with sponsors/ads and bells and whistles designed to attract the elusive “casual fan” but those features really were not overwhelming. In fact, it looks like there is a good deal of potential ad space unsold and the team’s production staff has not overdone the entertainment stuff to the point where it intrudes on the game. Of course there is plenty of time (and financial incentive I am sure) for that to change. Concessions (run by Centerplate which also handles San Francisco) have a lot of options, including some beloved locals (Five Guys, Ben’s Chili Bowl), but prices are (I’m shocked!) steep -- $7.50 was the cheapest draft beer I saw, $4.50 the cheapest hot dog. The menu is here.

For folks not familiar with DC, the ballpark is planned to anchor a major redevelopment of the Near Southeast section of the city. That work is ongoing, but the stadium was completed before most of the related development, including a new waterfront, a new “Canal Park” linking the ballpark zone to nearby residential neighborhoods, and a new entertainment district. I think the park will take on more character and develop a bit more of an identity once it is part of a built out neighborhood. It is, after all, an urban park designed to be part of a larger whole and so it is no great surprise that it seems incomplete still.

At this point though, the Nationals have a very serviceable and no-doubt extremely profitable new stadium, but one that to my mind doesn’t have a lot of oomph. Unlike Ryan Zimmerman, who has plenty.

2008-03-31 00:33:05
1.   Greg Brock
Great write up, Sam.

My Nats are going to shock some people!

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