Nats Park: Better And Worse
Good news and bad from the first weekday rush hour start at Nationals Park:
The good news is that the transportation system is working far more smoothly than anyone had anticipated. With a half-full stadium last night (that's a disappointment, of course, and despite the team's statements to the contrary, a potential sign of significant trouble ahead), Metro handled the crowds quickly and efficiently. The new Navy Yard station entrance absorbed the post-game rush far more easily than it had on sold-out Opening Night last week.
The streets were flowing with almost stunning ease, both before and after the game. Even M Street SE, the main east-west drag leading to the stadium, was moving easily just 25 minutes before the game.
Best of all, there was plenty of parking. I was happy to see the first stirrings of private entrepreneurs offering off-street parking, as guys holding cardboard signs grabbed the attention of the few who dared to drive down to the ballpark district without having first acquired a parking pass.
Now, the bad news: Those long, sluggish food queues we saw Opening Night were apparently not an anomaly. For an hour before last night's 10-7 loss to the Florida Marlins, and continuing straight through into the seventh inning, lines were dauntingly long and annoyingly slow, not only at the preposterously popular Ben's Chili Bowl stand but even at the ordinary hot dog and pizza stands, and especially at various beer and food specialty outlets.
The problem appears not to be one of staffing. To the contrary, there may even be too many staffers in some places. Cashiers stood around with nothing to do for much of the time, waiting for the workers behind the food counters to move customers along. And even behind the food counters, the problem does not seem to be lack of workers. At many stands, I saw workers doing nothing. And that's where the real problem lies: Management and supervision.
Just along the first base line concessions, I saw these problems: At a popcorn stand, three workers stood with their backs to the queue, watching the ballgame rather than serving customers. At a hot dog stand, two of the three workers had left their enclosure and were leaning over the rail, watching the Nats rally, leaving just one guy to deal with a 12-person-long queue. At a pizza outlet, two workers chatted with each other and a third ate a burger while only two service workers actually served the 17 people standing in line.
It's harder to say what the cause is of the other flaws the Nats failed to fix during the week between the stadium's opening and its first weeknight regular season game. The snazzy and alluring new scoreboard failed to function at all during the first inning and continued to have problems throughout the night. Part of the problem appears to be operator error, as the scoreboard frequently failed to keep up with changes on the field, never reflected any of the official scoring rulings and lineup changes that other major league scoreboards handle with ease (hit or error? double switch or not?) On at least four occasions, while the main scoreboard accurately showed who was batting, the secondary info screens that run along the circumference of the ballpark were showing a batter from the previous half-inning.
But there also appeared to be a mechanical or software breakdown last night, as the whole board went kablooey at the start of the game. And the PA system was spotty and balky throughout the night--it was off entirely for much of the first inning, delivering a painful buzz rather than announcements and music.
Obviously, there will continue to be start-up issues with new equipment, but the long queues at the concessions are something that the Nats management will want to get fixed sooner rather than later for fear of alienating an already soft fan base.
And that's what was most disturbing about last night. Yes, it was chilly, it was a Monday, the NCAA finals were on TV, and the opponent was the lowly Marlins. But please--this was Game Two at a spanking new stadium. The fact that the place was only half full was not a strong sign of fan support or even curiosity about the new park. I have little doubt that the stadium will fill up on weekends, but the success of this franchise depends on getting good crowds during the work week, and the Nats have lots of work to do to spread the word that getting to and from the stadium is neither a nightmare nor a chore, that the experience at the park is a load of fun, and that this team is serious about becoming a contender.
We've debated here many times about how good a sports town Washington is, and right now, there's plenty to get excited about, with the Caps and the Wizards in the playoffs and the Nats starting out at a new home. (The most unfortunate bit about last night's malfunctions is that Caps defender Mike Green was supposed to announce that it was time to "Play ball!" at game's start, but he stood embarrassed before the crowd on the jumbotron trying again and again to say the magic words and the microphone just wouldn't work.) But when the crowd immediately falls back on its old RFK ways of arriving late and leaving early--even in a tight 8-7 game with lots of action--that does not bode especially well.
More good news: The early indications are that this is indeed going to be a hitter's park. We saw some weak pitching on both sides last night, but even still, the homers were flying, there are some interesting gaps in the outfield that are making for extra-base hits (including a couple of triples from Cristian Guzman last night alone), and the sightlines are splendid.
Today on Raw Fisher Radio: National Harbor, the massive retail/hotel/office complex on the Potomac River in Prince George's County, opens after years of debate and preparation. What do its former opponents think now? Tune in anytime at washingtonpost.com/rawfisherradio to hear the discussion.
By Marc Fisher |
April 8, 2008; 12:42 PM ET
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