Work, family and friends brought me out to DC/Baltimore for the week, so I figured I might as well take in a Nationals game.
I came into Nationals Park with a sort of tongue in cheek prejudice against them. I still think of the Nats as a new franchise, and generally have disdain for new franchises. I also didn't like how they were birthed by a shady under the table deal between Bud Selig and Jeffery Loria. I do like their logo and uniforms and the fact that baseball is in DC, but whatever, I can have my useless biases.
Anyway, I was with my brother (dirty stinkin' Giants fan), his wife (Cubs fan) and meeting one of my best friends, a Pittsburgh native and hardcore Buccos fan. And that's kind of how Nationals games are. Lots of people are wearing gear of all sorts of teams. It's obviously one of the difficulties of a "new" team. But baseball is popular and the DC area has a large population so fans still come out to games despite their hometown allegiances. And there's something very American about taking in a ballgame on Mother's Day in the nation's capitol so the park was pretty full.
The park was essentially built in a relatively hurting industrial wasteland (sound familiar?) so they had a ton of space. There was nothing outside of the ballpark when they started, so they set up this giant tailgating area with shipping containers, called The Bullpen or Fairgrounds.
Beer is plentiful in The Bullpen
Cornhole, the traditional Mother's Day activity
The Bullpen is sort of like tailgating, without the tailgate or the grills, and you have to pay for beer. Not really that awesome but it's nice that they put something in because there isn't much there, and people of course like meeting up before and after the game and hanging out. Outside the Bullpen, there's a BART bridge-like thriving bootleg merch and scalped tickets marketplace. Which I of course appreciated.
At this point there are brand new high rises popping up all over the Southwest Quadrant of DC and the Anacostia River waterfront is being redeveloped, all spurred by the new ballpark. Nationals Park is a model for redevelopment of an area and I guess what Coliseum City might be going for. The difference is they had miles of space, or so it seems.
View from our seats. This is why you never leave it up to a Giants fan to buy your tickets.
And that's the first thing that struck me about the ballpark; space was no object. Most of the new downtown parks are in a limited space, and the constraints of having to work within the confines of an area lead to some nice quirks. Not Nationals Park.
Giant silver baseballs adorn a massive parking garage outside the park
The park itself is nice and modern. There's everything you could realistically want in a ballpark. Lots of food and drink stands, various options, vast wide concourses, nice big scoreboard and sound system. It's all nice.
My friend Brad kindly taking a pic for some fans. The rooftop centerfield bar is a prime hangout spot.
But (and you knew there was a "but" coming) it's so generically nice. Everything is right, but it's a little bland.
Something feels dirty about the Nats claiming the Expos' history.
My friend and I were looking at their wall of fame and remarking about Harmon Killebrew. Really? Gary Carter? Andre Dawson? They've co-opted the Expos' history and that of the Washington Senators which I suppose makes sense but just feels contrived. Although Killebrew put up two great seasons as a Senator, he is really remembered as a Twin. To underscore the newness of the franchise, the weekend was dedicated to the Nationals' tenth year anniversary, and they had a lot of commemorative gear for sale.
It was the Nationals' tenth anniversary, and the seventh year of Nationals Park
That being said, I did appreciate the various history displays they had as you walk around the park. Apparently the Negro Leagues' Homestead Grays (Homestead being a historically black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA) played in Washington DC for a time, and they had a lot of information about the team. Likewise with the Senators. Of course, the Senators were generally a tough luck franchise and went through a few iterations (one became the Minnesota Twins, the other the Texas Rangers) as major league baseball tried to make baseball work in DC.
I went to buy a Nationals cap and there was a solid New Era cap store with every possible Nats cap you could want. I ask the cap seller if he considers himself a die hard Nats fan. He said yes, definitely, but he grew up an Orioles fan. He mentioned that most of the Nats fanbase are either older fans who remember the Senators, or younger fans who are growing up with the team. That seemed to be my impression as well; the kids were really into it.
Nice touch displaying the player's walkup music
As for the game, it was a fun back-and-forth affair, with old friends Alberto Callaspo and Johnny Gomes on the Braves' squad. The Braves went up on a gift double that Michael Taylor lost in the hazy sky, and it looked like that would be how it ended up. However the bullpen for the Braves blew it (another familiar sight) and Wilson Ramos was the hero. One thing I liked about their in-game programming was that they would display the walk up music for each batter. Wilson Ramos' was "Wilson" by Phish. It was awesome to hear the crowd chant "WIILLLSSOON" after that guitar riff. They were loud, and even louder when he game through with what eventually became the game-winning RBI in the 8th. The Braves' last out came down to Alberto Callaspo, who stepped to the plate with two outs in the top of the 9th. As usual, he didn't come through.
The game came down to Alberto Callaspo.
I gotta give the Nats fans some credit. They came out with 31,000-plus on Mother's Day and seem to be genuinely into the game (even if the Nats are most peoples' "2nd team." They were loud and paying attention to balls and strikes. They didn't ooh and aah at every medium-deep flyball. And they were generally nice folks.
The park, on the other hand, was a bit soulless for me. You walk around and there is just a ton of space. It follows the book on new ballparks, making sure you have spacious bars, viewing decks, restaurant seating areas, exclusive clubs, and the whole nine yards. But it's almost as though the space was a handicap. It was too easy to just follow the book. Also the manila-colored stone as the main motif just furthered the sort of plain-vanilla feeling of the park. It didn't feel intimate at all; more like large and distant. And not just physically distant but more like the fans were separated from the field.
A gorgeous view of the Anacostia River is unfortunately tucked away behind the stadium, invisible from the seats
I know this sounds rich coming from an A's fan who watches dozens of games every year from the vastness of the Coliseum's foul territory in the shadow of Mount Davis, but somehow at an A's game there is a closeness - perhaps it's the RF and LF bleacher crews, maybe the bullpens on the field and the congregations of fans around that, and maybe the fact that it is a donut that is naturally enclosed, but I feel much more of a vibe at the Coliseum than Nationals Park.
There are plenty of hangout spaces all over the park, but you can't see the game from many of them.
Vis-a-vis the never-ending new stadium search for the A's, going to Nationals Park had me a bit worried about the prospects of Coliseum City. If Nationals Park and the surrounding area was transported to Oakland, it would never even come close to competing with the Giants' AT&T Park across the Bay. Given that the idea of Coliseum City is essentially to replicate the type of sports, office, and residential development that has happened in Southwest DC over the past ten years, I am not so sure about it. It definitely is nice for the city to have that boom take place in what was an extremely underdeveloped vestige of 70's urban renewal programs, but I think when you have to compete with AT&T Park literally 8 miles away, building a Nationals Park type place on the Coliseum plot wouldn't move the needle very far.
As a whole, I definitely enjoyed my time at Nationals Park and would go back again. The fans were cool and the team was fun. As far as how I would rate the park among new ballparks, it's decidedly blasé.
Have you visited Nationals Park? If so I would love to hear your perspective.
In case you're curious, I uploaded more photos here.