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10 Best Things About Nats Park (And Five Worst)

Grumpy editors, whiny stay-at-home fans, and other chronically unsatisfied types were virtually begging for the bad news from Nationals Park Sunday night. Surely, they said, it must have been a mess--the roads, the trains, the shuttle, the food?

Well, not really. Even in a jam-packed press box, where you aren't worth your media pass if you can't find something that wasn't done right, the vibe was celebratory bordering on giddy. But nobody's perfect, so before moving along to the Ten Best Things About Nats Park, here are the obligatory Five Worst Aspects of Washington's new stadium:

--The food lines were long and slow. There are vastly more food outlets at the new park than there were at RFK, and vastly better food (see below.) But despite nearly wall to wall points of sale, the queues snaked across the extra-wide concourses, blocking foot traffic and frustrating fans. The lines were especially long and slow at the park's biggest culinary hit, Ben's Chili Bowl (but there's a secret solution to this, which I will share below), and at the Mayorga Coffee carts, which were a particularly big hit on such a chilly evening.

--The more interesting and varied food is on the lower concourse and concentrated out in the left field corner. This makes some sense, in that the fans in the less expensive upper deck seats are perhaps presumed to be less willing to fork over more money for the higher ticket food items, but still, there was some unhappiness about the better food being focused on one level. But this is a stadium built to be wandered around during the game--you can see the action from just about everywhere, so if you're hungry, go exploring.

--Some fans found the overall cost of the experience to be just too scary. Sports historian Dennis Tuttle, who has attended quite a few stadium openings over the years, said he was disappointed to see that a $39 ticket ended up costing him $48.75 after the TicketMaster fees and "convenience" charge, and the outrageous $1.75 fee for the right to print the ticket at home on your own printer. By the time Tuttle added up the cost of his dog, fries, water, beer, ice cream, program and souvenir foam finger, his tally was up over $100. Ok, but plenty of folks paid $10 for a ticket (or even $5 for a lucky few hundred folks) and brought their own sandwich and water. Prices for professional sports venues are indeed stratospheric, but baseball relies more than any other sport on the casual fan of modest means, and there are thousands of cheap seats at Nats Park.

--The scoreboard, stunning as it is visually, is not yet being used as a good communicator of information. Unlike some other new generation scoreboards, this one does not yet show both team's lineups throughout the game, so fans who score the game were left wondering for half an inning just what changes the managers had made (was it a double switch?) And the scoreboard so far only briefly shows how each batter has done in his previous at-bats.

--The security obsession that infected the government after the Oklahoma City bombings and 9/11 has wormed its way into the ballpark. Channel 9 reporter Dave Statter last night witnessed uniformed Secret Service officers preventing fans from photographing the stadium. Statter's camera captured a ludicrous moment in which an officer forced a visitor from Minnesota to delete photos from his digital camera because the fan had dared to take a picture of the stadium's exterior that might have included a security checkpoint. The Secret Service also tried to stop Channel 9's cameras from shooting the stadium building, but Statter rightfully told the officers to stuff it. Let's hope this silliness is limited to the day of the presidential visit to Nats Park.

Ok, that's it for whining for now. On to the good stuff:

1. The building shouts "fan-friendly," from the plentiful bathrooms to the almost solid wall of food outlets around the entire stadium, to the seats that face the action no matter how cheap the ticket. The centerfield gate is a long toss from the Metro station exit, which in a way is too bad, because the far more appealing entrance is the one that very few fans see, the dramatic ramp up into the home plate entrance at S. Capitol Street and Potomac Avenue SE. (Note the incorrect street sign that the D.C. transportation department put up on the northeast corner of that intersection--the sign has the wrong quadrant on it.)

2. I'm not one for whiz-bang non-baseball distractions at the the game, but the interactive gaming facility behind the centerfield restaurant is pretty cool, with free MLB '08 Play Station 3 game consoles, Guitar Hero games, karaoke, and a driving simulator so new that the instructions are still only in Japanese. You can play all that stuff without charge; next door, there are splendid new pitching and batting cages for a nominal fee.

3. The amazing clarity of the scoreboard is so alluring that some fans wondered if they would be distracted from watching the real game. This is the best ad I've ever seen for high def--it's digital clarity of such detail that even from the press box on the sixth floor of the stadium, you can tell whether the fans being shown on the big screen bothered to shave that morning.

4. The foul territory is cleverly designed so that there's plenty of running room for fielders to chase popups, as right fielder Austin Kearns demonstrated Sunday night, but there's also another kind of drama: The foul ground behind home plate is more limited than in any other park, Nats officials say, and that means we are likely to see some dangerous and breathtaking plays by catchers. I ran my hand along the edge of the granite-topped bluestone wall behind the plate and came up with scratches just from a light brush, so imagine what might happen when a catcher barrels into that wall at full speed.

5. The worst aspect of dual-purpose RFK--the long, empty space in the outfield that made fans seem too far removed from the action and from each other--is solved with an attractive mix of bleachers and a centerfield high-rollers section that will take some getting used to. I don't yet understand why a section of centerfield bleachers is considered a particularly good place from which to watch a game, even if there is a spiffy restaurant out there and a bar up above the seating, but the Nats owners predict that this will become a hot spot for singles and, presumably, heavy drinkers (my words, definitely not the team's.) Whatever the fate of that section, the design that rings the entire field with fans gives the whole place a far more intimate feeling, which came through very well as Ryan Zimmerman's walk-off homer brought the crowd to their dancing, jumping feet.
I did miss RFK's bouncy seats at that moment.

6. The food is so hugely improved over RFK's dreary fare that fans could hardly believe their good fortune. Some of the items I heard good things about or tasted include the Ben's half smokes, Noah's Curly W pretzels, the plain old Nats Dogs, the Five Guys burgers, the Gifford's Dingers (vanilla ice cream between two chocolate cookies, a novelty created for the new park), the Mayorga coffee, and of course the Boardwalk Fries. Fans were patient about the very long lines, on the theory that these are first week kinks that will work out in the coming days. Let's hope so. (Also heard some grumbling about the lack of hot dog vendors in the stands.)
My kids begged me not to give this away, but I feel obliged to let you know that you need not wait in the extremely long queue at the Ben's Chili Bowl stand to get a Ben's half smoke with the works. The very same dogs and toppings are available at the Noah's Pretzel stand and several of the Nats Dogs stands. Don't say I never did anything for you.

7. Ryan Zimmerman.

8. Metro did its job quite well. I waited until the back half of the biggest surge of people leaving the ballpark and shuffling up Half Street one block to the Navy Yard station's new entrance. There is the inevitable clot of people clustered at the entrance to the station, waiting for their turn to get through the turnstiles, so maybe you could argue that the station doesn't have enough Farecard gates, but despite the huge crowd, it only took us about six minutes to get past the gates, and then it was clear sailing down to the platform, where one train was just pulling out and we then had about a five minute wait for the next one. Metro could have done a better job of stacking trains, but the bottom line was that from leaving our stadium seats to reaching the L'Enfant Plaza transfer station took barely more than 20 minutes at the very height of the exodus from the park.
One complaint: A Metro employee who seemed to love the sound of his own voice over the PA system made the wait down on the platform inside the Navy Yard station far more unpleasant than it should have been, as he kept repeating the same inane set of instructions at top volume, in a harsh and annoying tone.

9. The Lerners are a class act, many fans told me. I heard so many comparisons to Dan Snyder and Peter Angelos that I started to think the Lerners had planted people in the crowd to tout their superiority over some of the region's other big-league team owners. I arrived at Nats Park expecting that many fans would be somewhat wistful about the move from RFK--not that they loved that old heap of a stadium, but I figured that since baseball fans tend to be nostalgic by nature, there would be some feeling that new is not necessarily better and that glitz means that things become way too expensive for the regular guy. But I heard hardly any such talk, perhaps because such folks had no desire to shell out for Opening Night seats. I spent six hours talking to people around the stadium and what I heard was overwhelmingly a sense of gratitude--to the Lerners, to the construction team that got the place built so well and so quickly, and to former mayor Tony Williams, who was shamefully ignored in the pre-game ceremonies.

10. Walk off. Again. Give that man a contract--a very long contract.

Oh, one more thing: Teddy is never going to win. Ever. Ever, ever, ever.

Please come ahead with your bests and worsts about the new stadium....

By Marc Fisher |  March 31, 2008; 12:03 PM ET
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I read in the Post over the weekend that the Lerners tried to get the city to buy the Nats uniforms, for that, they are no longer a class act in my book.

Posted by: Betty | March 31, 2008 1:25 PM

Assuming the concession lines will work themselves out as the organization gets a better feel for demand for the various vendors, my only regret was that Clint, the Ryan Seacrest-esque dufus leader of the Nat Pack remained a prominent part of the in-game entertainment package. Trivia questions and give aways are fine, but that kid's a loser.

Posted by: Sturmond | March 31, 2008 1:31 PM

"The Lerners are a class act."

They're running a bargain-basement team in a lavish new stadium that other people paid for. The least they can do is be classy.

Posted by: Tom T. | March 31, 2008 1:36 PM

I hope you reminded the gratful fans that the Lerners didn't build the stadium. The city did.

Posted by: Mr. Ghandi | March 31, 2008 1:46 PM

That was a misstatement (I think). The dispute was whether they had to pay for security uniforms (or maybe it was concessionaires). It definitely wasn't the player uniss.

Posted by: Bill | March 31, 2008 2:03 PM

Worst: Adrian Fenty saying "Play Ball", after our mayor did all he could to prevent that very phrase; and Clint being back with the Nat pack. What an utter tool.

Posted by: Rudy and Blitz | March 31, 2008 2:26 PM

Really? Teddy is never going to win? I do wonder about that, what would have to happen for him to win??

Posted by: 20010 | March 31, 2008 2:26 PM

Hey Marc, I did NOT eat or buy all that stuff, even though I am a glutton on many levels. Besides, why pay $48.75 to stand in line for all nine innings instead of the four I wasted?

No, I walked the stadium and did pricing to compare with other MLB teams on the Team Marketing Index, which tracks the price for the "Family of Four" to attend a pro sports event. The Nats' average cost per game for the family of four leaped an astounding 32.1 percent from last year to $195 per game, and that doesn't include the 2007 concessions prices the Nats submitted to TMI for the 2008 report.

I also challenge you to buy cheap seats for the family of four. The $5 seats are game-day sales only and getting four together in the $10 seats is a serious challenge. Too bad the mainstream media is only concerned with random cosmetics and the corporate wags in their wanton praise of new stadiums instead of the everyday fan who serves as the foundation of attendance in baseball, where the season is twice as long, the stadium twice as big, and the school year eclipses one-half the season.

Let's see if bandwagon Washington is willing to dole out those prices under the novelty affect of the new park while this team continues to languish as a lower-division club. Just imagine the costs if this team ever wins!

Posted by: dentuttle | March 31, 2008 2:33 PM

Like others have said, the concession lines should work themselves out...but how hard is it to hand over a dog and a beer and make change? And other accounts had fans waiting four to five innings in line? If you waited over half a game in line, well, I don't know what to tell you...

Posted by: Annandale | March 31, 2008 2:34 PM

The last thing anyone should do is stop anyone from Minnesota from photographing a new baseball stadium. They should have access to the blueprints, a detailed timeline and budget for the construction, and a large-print handbook entitled, "So You Want To Get Rid of Your Unholy Abomination of a Baseball Stadium."

Posted by: Wasn't there | March 31, 2008 2:36 PM

Marc, I'm guessing that one of the reasons the "most interesting and varied food" choices are located on the lower deck in left field has less to do than isolating them from the less expensive seats and more to do with putting these choice in the most convenient location for all fans to pass by them on their way in the ballpark. I'll know entering the stadium in left field (where most fans will enter) that I'll be able to walk right by Hard Times and Ben's on the way up to my seats in the 400s.

I also disagree about the gaming facility in center field. Neither my wife nor I are scolds, but we were both appalled to see the video games in center field. Take your child to an outdoor sporting event . . . only to play video games inside the whole time. I think not.

Posted by: csp17 | March 31, 2008 2:36 PM

I went to the pre-season game on Saturday night and what I was most taken with was the excellent customer service from the crew there, from the ushers to the greeters at the gate to all of the concession folks. I never had a bad experience with any of the staff at RFK--heck, I got to know the staff at the Dominic's near my seat pretty well--but nothing that left as positive of an impression as Saturday night.

Posted by: John | March 31, 2008 3:05 PM

The nickel and dime whining is sadly predictable. But I for one intend to keep it in perspective. Just think of the amount of whining we would have heard if:

1) The stadium didn't get done on time.
2) The cost of the stadium ballooned.
3) The stadium was not ready for primetime because of needed shortcuts in order to hit the Opening Day deadline.
4) Metro had a botched performance.
5) The RFK shuttle was a debacle.
6) Car security at RFK was a joke.

None of this happened, but of course, that doesn't prevent us from finding much more stupid stuff to whine about (the location of the fancier food joints is particularly pathetic). And let's not forget that all of this revolves around a reality that was a dream just 5 years ago - DC has a MLB team, which is a reality that replaced 30+ years of a very different kind of whining.

Everybody needs to grow up a bit. If not, please stay home and whine at the TV. You won't be missed at the ballpark.

Posted by: Helen | March 31, 2008 3:11 PM

Best $15 seat experience I've ever had (but I'm still giddy from Z's walk off gome run)!

One complaint - Perhaps it was a quaint way to memorialize the city's Metro system, but let's try to keep the escalators to the upper deck working (broken for the exhibition game and after the game last night)

Posted by: nats fan | March 31, 2008 3:11 PM

LOL - I agree completely with one of the previous posters about taking your kids to an outdoor event only to shuttle them off to the video arcade!

From my club level seats, I can see vast improvements over the RFK "experience". Though I go to the games to watch the games, I'm not oblivious to the upgraded surroundings. In the Club section for example, I am actually looking forward to sitting through a rain delay in the lounge instead of seeking cover on the concourse.

We all knew the food was going to be priced on the high end. If you're surprised by this, one question...where have you been? The flip answer is eat before you come. As that isn't practical if you're coming directly from work, I would suggest planning carefully and set aside X amount and when it's gone, it's gone. More than likely you're not a full season ticket holder so you should be able to plan in advance for your excursion. Keep in mind that you can bring in prepared food. I've seen more than a few folks hit a subway or other sandwich shop and only buy drinks inside.

All in all, this is such an upgrade over RFK that it's hard to seriously complain. Sure, the concession help could be more efficient but at least they seemed to give an honest effort over the first weekend.

Hopefully the on field product(the real reason for this) and the behind the scenes "experience" will improve over time.

Posted by: FRANK 20 | March 31, 2008 3:22 PM

Wasn't there,

Minnesota's already got a ballpark under construction:

And, just my opinion, but I think it'll be a better overall park than DC's.

Posted by: ex-pat minnesotan | March 31, 2008 3:36 PM

I don't know about Marc's comment on the distance from the Metro entrance to the centerfield gate--it seems a whole lot shorter than the same distance at RFK, just a block down Half Street (did you come out on the New Jersey Ave side or something?). Maybe you should walk it off at the two locations and get back to us on the difference. Plus, you can actually see the stadium when you come out of the station, unlike at RFK, and it's a straight shot.

On a related note, did anyone do the walk to or from the Capitol South station? How was it?

Posted by: JJ | March 31, 2008 3:45 PM

I was at the game on Saturday and I absolutely love the stadium. The scoreboard, however, left me wanting more. Not more glitz and shimmer, but more actual information.

Normally, I score the games I attend, but since it was a spring training game I knew there would be too many changes to bother keeping up. I didn't know how happy I would be to make that decision.

First problem I noticed was that the batters' average, SLG%, and other totals (OBP was missing for some reason) were only listed on the side ribbon boards and not the main scoreboard. I don't need to be told that a batter hits and throw right handed. Not necessary information.

Secondly, I noticed the lineup on the scoreboard had the useless number in the hitting order (1-9) next to the batters last name. We can figure out that is the actual order and not some random compilation of names. The necessary information is the uniform number and position -- both of which were absent. Sure the scoreboard at RFK left a lot to be desired, but it never lacked the proper information.

The third thing I noticed was on the "Player Card" on the scoreboard during an at-bat. For some players, including Brian Roberts, they were labeled "IF" (infielder) instead of their position. This could make sense for some players but Roberts has only played 53 of his 807 career games at any other position than second base.

Lastly, there was no proper listing of previous at-bats. The main scoreboard showed something like "First at-bat: Pop out". Not useful at all. At RFK there was at least a ribbon board that showed P7, K, ROE, 2B, etc. There was none of that at the new park.

I've heard that the program sellers didn't have pencils or even know where to get them and why you'd want one.

I could be missing some things but that's what I noticed and jotted down at the game. There is a lot of space on that scoreboard -- it's area is four times larger than my apartment -- but most of it is not being used wisely. Hopefully, they will make some changes.

Posted by: bayma | March 31, 2008 3:52 PM

Love the stadium, but...

Metro needs to do more to get trains through the TRANSFER stations. A 15 minute wait at L'Enfant is compeltely unacceptable and defeats the entire purpose of having so many trains leave the Navy Yard.

The 90 mintues to get in through security was also insane, but we'll blame that on the Secret Service (post-9/11 insanity w/ W) and assume that won't happen again until next Opening Day.

Posted by: stevem | March 31, 2008 4:23 PM

The city spent $600 million on a glorified amusement park with a baseball theme?

I mean there's a place to play video games, a batting cage, a ridiculous HD big screen, and lots of high cholesterol food for sale.

DC should get a rebate from MLB.

Posted by: baseball is so boring the | March 31, 2008 4:26 PM

The most disapointing thing about Nationals Park is they hired the same dolts to work the concession stands that were at RFK. It took 2 innings to get a hot dog because the 15 people behind the counter were chatting it up with each other instead of working the counter to serve people.

Everything else about the stadium was wonderful.

Posted by: Section 143 | March 31, 2008 4:40 PM

I find it hysterical than so many of you point out what an upgrade a spanking new stadium is over RFK. Like, duh. That's the whole purpose of a new stadium., The woods in my backyard are an upgrade over RFK.

As for the cost of going to a game, for those of you without two kids, judge ye not. Take a kid to a ballgame, they ain't there for the game. They're there for everything but . . . and that includes the concessions, mascots, souvenirs and interactive games. Kids, more than adults, want the total package of the event.

If those prices are true, we'll only be making one or two trips. It's just not enough bang for our bucks, and we can afford it. That one-night cost at the Nats puts one of my kids through a week of summer swimming camp.

Weigh it: one night at the game vs. a week's piece and quiet?

No . . . brain . . . er.

Posted by: rickNmd | March 31, 2008 4:51 PM

Hold on though: the Ben's half smokes at the other stands are not grilled, they're warmed up on those roller things like the regular hot dogs, so they're limp, not to sizzling. Not worth the extra $2.25.
Also, I found the service to be aggravatingly and inexplicably slow.
Finally, I hate Clint. Is there anyone who doesn't, apart from his family and, apparently, the Nats ownership?
Lovely ballpark, by the way, and a heck of a game last night.

Posted by: Jeffrey | March 31, 2008 6:23 PM

What do you expect from the food vendor employees? You're not going to get professionalism from someone who speaks Ebonics.

Posted by: Realism | March 31, 2008 8:08 PM

Clint is the single worst thing about the ballpark. He couldn't even read his script right- he mispronounced several of the names that he was reading. Even my two-year-old could have done a better job. Then again, if I had a rich, influential daddy like he does, I could do anything I wanted to.

Posted by: I hate Clint | March 31, 2008 9:22 PM

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