By Daniel LeDuc
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Cleats tore into Kentucky bluegrass, balls thudded into catchers' mitts and organ music echoed over the seats. Fans munching hot dogs cheered the guys on the field playing baseball at the new Nationals Park for the first time.
And even as the matinee between George Washington and St. Joseph's universities was underway, a crane lowered a sign outside the ballpark and construction workers in hard hats pounded away in the upper decks. They were racing to get the place ready for the Nationals season opener a week from today against the Atlanta Braves.
The game was a warmup, a chance for about 3,000 fans to try out seats, buy food, use restrooms and, most importantly, see what baseball looks like in a ballpark built just for the sport. And what they learned is this: After years of political debate and turmoil that almost caused Major League Baseball to pull out of Washington, the city has a stadium that seems just about ready for prime time.
Sitting behind home plate, there was little to see that didn't look finished. One set of concession stands and a restaurant were still being worked on. But all 41,222 seats are bolted in place. The scoreboard's screen swirled with a montage of statistics and pictures and video replays, without a glitch.
Even Mother Nature seemed to take kindly to the day. Despite some early sprinkles, the sun glowed as D.C. Washington sang the national anthem. His face filled the scoreboard as the video boards in the stadium flashed flourishes of stars and stripes and photos of the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial.
"This is a moment," Nationals President Stan Kasten declared. As the singer finished, Kasten said, "Baseball has a theme of romanticism running through it. It's the national pastime for a reason, and the pace defines it."
There's no doubt that this is a distinctly Washington home for the national pastime. In addition to the videos' patriotic influences, the seats are blue and red and sit against a pale limestonelike finish that evokes the feeling of a giant flag.
"You know what I love? It's not named anything commercial. I like that," Katie Cook said. That won't last forever; the Nationals have not yet sold naming rights.
"It's not quite as beautiful as Camden Yards," said Cook, who came with her parents, who are GWU alumni. "But it has a funky feeling like RFK, funky in a good way. It has some spit and humanity to it."
Not everyone would call RFK Stadium a funky place. Nearly 50 years old, the place was, well, not exactly a choice venue to watch a baseball game. But the architecture at Nationals Park is deliberate. Unlike so many redbrick ballparks that have followed Baltimore's lead, Nationals Park reflects the federal architecture of the city with smooth concrete and a memorial-like quality.
"I'm very pleased," former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) said of the ballpark's look. "I really pushed for something that gave a sense of place."
And it has a democratic sense as well.
The cheapest seat has some of the best views. Seat N3 in section 401 is in the highest deck overlooking the foul ball marker in left field. It is one of 400 seats that cost $5 and are sold on game days. It gives a view of all the action on the field, is level with the press box and the top of the scoreboard, and has a good view of the Anacostia River and the old destroyer USS Barry, moored at the Navy Yard.
It is 82 steps, down two flights of stairs, to the nearest restroom and, on the way, a fan passes two concession stands at which a hot dog costs $4.50 and a Budweiser is $7.50.
Best of all, a fan sitting in N3 just needs to glance to the left for an unobstructed view of the Capitol. Over the left shoulder is the Washington Monument, and over the right shoulder, in the distance, is the new Air Force Memorial.
For those plunking down $300 a game for the most expensive spots, the 500 Presidential seats right behind home plate, there are no skyline views. But the view of the game is spectacular: Seat A10 is level to the playing field, overlooking the batter's shoulder.
For that kind of money, complimentary hot dogs and nachos are delivered to a softly cushioned seat. It is only 32 steps, along hand-crafted blue slate masonry, to the softly-lit Oval Office Bar in the President's Club, which is decorated with photos of the past 17 presidents, starting with William Howard Taft. The presidents are shown throwing the first pitch or attending a ballgame during their time in office.
(If you ever get a chance to get in there, which for most of us is doubtful, check out George H.W. Bush's photo. It says he's at a Texas Rangers game. But the ballpark behind him has the big logo of the Baltimore Sun and looks an awful lot like the old Memorial Stadium.)
A Grey Goose martini or a Crown Royal manhattan will cost $12 in the President's Club bar. A glass wall offers a view of the Nationals' batting cages under the stands as well as a peak at the media room, where players and coaches face sportswriters after the game. There also will be complimentary buffets of flank steak, crab cakes and salmon croquettes.
One Nationals executive called seats in left center field "one of the best-kept secrets" because they are the only cushioned seats apart from the Presidential ones and go for $60, with $20 as credit for food. Unlike at RFK, all seats in the new ballpark have cup holders. The seats have small tables between them and are right by the exit to the plaza to beat the rush after games.
No matter where fans sat yesterday, the food selection was limited to a handful of concession stands. Still, the aroma of french fries and hot dogs that lingered in a slight breeze off the Anacostia had a ballpark smell.
Jasen Ambler, a GWU alum, spent $14 on a chicken burrito and a bottle of green tea. "I'd buy it again if they put more meat on it," he said. He was watching the game from the concourse, which is designed to be open and allow fans to catch the action.
"That's important, so you don't miss the game," he said. "Every seat is a good view."
Prices at the stands included $8 for a cheese pizza, $6.50 for Italian sausage, $9.50 for chicken tenders, $10 for nachos, $8 for tacos, $4.75 for popcorn, $4 for peanuts, $4 for bottle water, and $4.50 and $5.50 for sodas.
"Can't come to a baseball game without buying some Cracker Jacks!" shouted one vendor as he hiked up and down the stairs. They were going for $4 a box.
The ballpark will get an even bigger dress rehearsal Saturday, when almost 30,000 fans will see the Nationals take on the Orioles in an exhibition game. The evening matchup is open to season ticket holders and Nationals' guests, including many of the construction workers and their families.
The event will provide the first real test of the scene outside and inside the ballpark. Team executives and city officials have been concerned for months about transportation. Parking remains at a premium in the neighborhood, and Metro is cited as the easiest way to a game.
Yesterday, the traffic was light and good omens prevailed. Not the least of which was the home team coming out on top. GWU beat St. Joseph's 9-4.