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A Thing Of Beauty

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Nationals' new ballpark is the bomb. After decades of waiting, Washington has a winner. Within a few years, as the Anacostia waterfront development project sparks urban revitalization, we may be even more pleased. For now, it's enough to know that, after all the angst and expense, Nationals Park will be stunning. We can refine the grade later, but we know it will be high.

New baseball parks have several symbolic milestones -- unveiling architectural plans, groundbreaking, topping out the superstructure, painting tens of thousands of seats, laying the sod, then finally, after months of buffing the brass, Opening Day.

But, for me, yesterday was the day that really mattered. Ostensibly, Mayor Adrian Fenty, the Nationals and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission merely unveiled their new Kentucky bluegrass field, celebrating another on-time, on-budget landmark on the $611 million road to Opening Day. This, however, was different. Squint, blur the rough edges, and it's already April.

The park is built to the topmost row, the light towers arcing over the banks of classy deep-blue seats. The grass field is in place, the diamond, mound and batter's boxes cut out, the outfield walls painted and even the foul poles standing at attention. The huge scoreboard, the "Nationals" sign and curly "W" are clear.

You can sit in virtually every seat, including a $17 seat in the upper deck infield gallery just beyond first base where you can see the entire Capitol, the top of the Washington Monument, the Washington National Cathedral etched on the horizon, the verdigris dome of the Library of Congress and, by turning your head, a mile expanse of the Anacostia River complete with ships at the Navy Yard. Washington doesn't have the San Gabriel or Rocky Mountains in the distance like the Dodgers and Rockies, nor the skyscraper views of Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Philadelphia framed beyond the outfield. We don't have the San Francisco Bay beyond the right field bleachers or the charm (bordering on claustrophobia) of Fenway Park or Wrigley Field.

But, for a city with almost no buildings more than 14 stories high, and no mountains or bays, this park has maximized what Washington has to offer. And it's plenty. There may be no other spot in this area where you can get a 360-degree sense of place and sweep that rivals this park.

The Nats' new home may also evoke the unique architectural style of its city as successfully, and bravely, as any in the majors. The park's classic modern design mirrors the motif that has won praise at the D.C. Convention Center. Constructed with the same materials by the same builder, its vast panels of glass behind home plate and along South Capitol Street allow the park to glow from within at night. "On-time and on-budget," plus more than $40 million in upgrades by the Lerner family, means that the park's exterior already looks like a glistening knockout. Wraparound views from the club suites behind home plate look across the Potomac River to landing planes at National Airport and landmarks in Northern Virginia.

Of course, red-brick retro worshipers may disagree with this light-suffused look. But the District's world-famous monuments aren't 19th-century industrial. The park, with an administrative building that pays triangular homage to I.M. Pei's East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, looks like it belongs in this alabaster city and, frankly, perhaps no place else. Just as Yankee Stadium's proud architecture says "Home of Champions," Washington's new park isn't afraid to say "World Capital."

The biggest visual surprises are the views from the ramps to the upper deck, especially on the first base side, where the panorama includes everything from Anacostia (hills covered with trees with lights twinkling at night) around to Virginia. Someday, as development encircles more of the park, these vistas will be reduced, although the most essential angles of vision -- up the Anacostia, across the Potomac and toward the Washington Monument -- are supposed to be retained. As for the Capitol dome, take a good look at it. Each year, you'll see it less.

The Nats are proudest of what team president Stan Kasten calls "proximity to the field and sightlines that are unrivaled." Most new parks claim such virtues. Except San Diego's Petco Park, I've walked every big league stadium. The Nats' new home is as cozy, with seats angled for best vision, as any modern venue. Reduced foul territory has brought every lower deck seat from 16 to 23 feet closer than the comparable seat at RFK Stadium. That's like a five-to-eight-row upgrade.

Nationals Park may have one design breakthrough. All the expensive suites are stacked behind home plate (forcing the press box to blimp level). "We don't have club seats down the lines, so the upper decks and mezzanines are closer," Kasten said. For hours, wandering the park, I marveled at how many seats in the $17 to $29 price range were dramatically better than in almost any other park.

Luckily, Elijah Griffin, 31, an electrician working near the top of the park, grabbing lights as they were lowered from the roof, gave me the best perspective on the class distinctions at Nationals Park. "They're charging the rich people so much to sit down there in the lower deck that the seats up here aren't too expensive at all. And they might be the best seats," Griffin said, as we sat in Section 230 Row N. From this spectacular $10 seat, you could see the Anacostia, the warships, the cathedral, the Library of Congress and especially the Washington Monument framed like a 555-foot-tall guest peeking into the park from beyond the left field foul pole.

At those prices, Griffin figures his son Sincere, 4, who already has Agent Zero and Clinton Portis jerseys, as well as his infant daughter Samadhi, will be able to join him for years at the park he helped build.

The Nationals say that many, if not all of the traditional "best seats" in the new ballpark already are sold. The closest box seats and all the club seats are gone. Savvy fans relocating from RFK already gobbled up the bargain 300 Level infield gallery seats for $20 to $22.

However, the best seats in the park by far, for panoramic views as well as value relative to other parks, have hardly been touched. Which ones? Study any seat priced from $15 to $29 and, believe it or not, some of the $10 seats, too.

First impressions of new ballparks are vitally important. Everything around a park changes radically within a few years -- its neighborhood, transportation issues and general urban development. But the ballpark itself, whether it's a hit or a dud, is locked in place forever from the first time you see what the finished product will be.

Does the place excite or disappoint you? Does the whole experience, from roof to box seats, including every promenade and vista, cause a thrill of surprise or make you mourn lost opportunities for a great park?

Countless amenities and levels of polish are still to come. Parking issues and problems as yet unsuspected will arrive. But Nationals Park, now so close to finished in all its most important aspects, is finally ready for our meet-your-seat inspection. To my surprise, despite such a ludicrous life-long wait and many clenched-jawed apprehensions, I loved the place. Hope you do, too.

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