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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