The Thrill Is Gone -- What's Left?

Scott Watson

This weekend will test the new stadium for me.

Not a test of traffic, or concession lines (which are amazingly speedy when only twenty-thousand fans show up!), but the most fundamental test:

"Do I like Nationals Park"?

After three visits, my over-the-top enthusiasm has burned off. That's to be expected. But leaving on Wednesday, my friend described the place as "an anonymous amusement park, with a vague baseball theme." And that description struck a nerve.

As much as Boswell was right that the park "fits in" to Washington, an attendee doesn't really have any sense of Washington, or anything else for that matter.

The skyline is effectively obliterated; it could be in Rosslyn, or outside Houston, Texas. If you crawl on your knees or walk through the more obscure parts of the park, you can see the Capitol Dome dimly glowing in between parking garages and undersold condo buildings. The riverfront is totally wasted; the park doesn't sit by the river, it just overlooks concrete trucks sitting by the river. Ben's, Hard Times, Boardwalk Fries, and Gifford's lend a little sense of place, but the many concession outlets are largely anonymous and unimpressive.

Admittedly, I'm spoiled -- one drive down Constitution Avenue would give any stadium "Monument Envy," and nobody really considered the Mall a suitable site for the park. And I'm spoiled by being able to walk from Ben's Chili Bowl to the Lincoln Theater, or to the 9:30 Club, or to Bohemian Caverns. Nationals Park can't compete with architectural splendor or historical significance, and the neighborhood is too newly-developed to offer up its own charms. Yet. But St. Louis integrated its new park into the city perfectly, just as C*mden Y*rds [I don't wanna say the name 'til Angelos sells the team, lest anyone go up there] fit perfectly into that city. Character abounds in each. I worry that our shiny new park may offer little character.

Let's hope I'm just bummed out by the losing streak.

By Scott Watson  |  April 11, 2008; 11:59 AM ET  | Category:  Scott Watson
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I can see the Capitol dome from my seat, and the Washington monument is clearly visible whenever I walk up/down the ramps. Maybe I'm just lucky, but I have no problem knowing which city I'm in. :)

I disagree about the "amazingly speedy" concession lines, though: I've been to all 5 games so far (counting the Exhibition Game), I've gotten food at least two times during each game, and only twice has the transaction gone as smoothly and quickly as it should. It's still my biggest grumble about the new stadium.

Posted by: Section 312 | April 11, 2008 12:23 PM

I think you make some valid points. Ultimately it will take time to have a proper atmosphere-- plus the surrounding area done up nicely. I was thinking how the non Metro entrances don't get any use but ultimately when there is the waterfront development they will be a popular entrance.

What is weird about the stadium is how it somehow makes the crowd more tame than RFK. Not sure how that is achieved. And I understanding not putting the baseball on top of the ribbon above the Red Porch but it really looks like something is missing up there.

Posted by: GoNats | April 11, 2008 12:38 PM

I'm glad you brought this up too and I think those of us who go to 20 or more games a year will wrestle with this feeling more than the occasional game-goer.

We're entering that awkward new-relationship stage after the newness has worn off but before the comfortable familiarity sets in.

I'm pretty sure some exciting wins in the park will help speed up your intimacy with the park. Hang in there.

Posted by: Stantun | April 11, 2008 12:51 PM

Yeah, we got a lot of functionality and not a whole lot of character. Amusement park might be a bit of a stretch -- for me it's a little more like a baseball mall. A basemall, if you will. (Hey wait! The Lerners own malls! And there are signs advertising them in right field! Could this be a coincidence?)

It's a great place to see a game though. And I have found that, even as a hard core baseball guy, I don't stay in my seat, because there are so many different places to stand and get a great, and new and different, view of the game.

The whole process was such a SNAFU that it's a miracle we have a team and a park in the first place. That's going to have to carry us for a few years until the neighborhood improves (it's awfully hard to build a park that is integrated into the city when you choose to build it in a neighborhood that is not integrated into the city). Also, there are plans to have parkland along the river so eventually the "grand staircase" should make sense (as it is, nobody uses it because there is no earthly reason to enter from that side unless you're picking up some gravel for your driveway on the way in).

Posted by: Bob L. Head | April 11, 2008 1:03 PM

I agree with Bob L. Head and Stantun here -- I just game from our eighth loss v. the Braves (overall my second time in the Park) and see both the awkwardness of the new relationship and the unfamiliarity of the blank mall-like feeling.

I just have to think to myself that when stades were popping up all over America in the 40s and 50s, it was probably the same (except for society's naive enthusiasm about development). But still, the Fenways and Wrigleys were also once new. We are the grandparents of upcoming traditions and lore, and there's nothing we can do to speed up the process.

Posted by: Emilie from Grounds Crew | April 11, 2008 11:42 PM

I'm keeping the opening day excitement alive by taking different friends to the Park for their first time. The enjoyment and excitement they feel is contagious.

Posted by: Section 222 | April 12, 2008 12:39 AM

I posted this as part of another thread, but it seems to fit perfectly here:

I agree that the ballpark leaves something to be desired. It is perfectly nice, but missing that special spark. It is visually uninteresting. A real shame that so few seats provide a view of the Capitol. It is a huge HD TV with a ballpark attached.

I would suggest that they put a scale model of the Capitol Dome on top of the Red Porch Restaurant where the giant baseball was supposed to go. It would fit perfectly, provide visual interest and indelibly mark the ballpark as being in Washington as nothing else could (except for a view of the actual Capitol, which apparently could not be arranged for most seats).

Posted by: Ed in Alex | April 12, 2008 7:43 PM

No, no, no a thousand times no to a fake Capitol or fake anything else.

The place will develop character over time, preferably with a minimum of gimmicks.

I do suggest that the Lerners, before EVERY game (not just opening night) have live music on the plaza and/or out on Half Street. This will add to the festive atmosphere entering the park, at least until Half Street becomes the festive entryway it is eventually expected to become.

Later on, once development and retail/restaurants come to the N St., 1st St, and Potomac Avenue sides of the park (S. Capitol is likely always to be a semi-freeway), the character and ambience of the ballpark will change enormously. And, one hopes, when that happens, the small parking lot that mars what should be a main focal point -- the area behind homeplate, under the big glass wall and the large "Nationals" sign -- will be placed underground and replaced with something more energy-creating.

Posted by: Meridian | April 14, 2008 10:22 AM

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