House of Representativeness
All my life, Washington has lacked something that our greatest cities possess, a big league park worthy of the town and representative of it, too. Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field and AT&T Park are so close to the grain of New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco that you haven't felt the full texture of the towns unless you've wandered in the parks where they've played their most memorable baseball.
Now, elegant, intimate Nationals Park has swept itself together in recent weeks, polished all 41,888 of its seats, power-washed its exterior and made itself ready, from the $335 Presidents seats to the $5 Grandstand seats, to join the ranks of America's finest and most redolent-of-place ballparks. The new stadium's unique quality, however, is unexpected.
A metropolitan area of nearly 6 million people that is not supposed to possess a "sense of place" now has a park that epitomizes that very virtue, using its central location and panoramic views to unify the major threads in the region's complex fabric.
The park's sleek, modernist outside, the cozy sightlines inside, the huge high-def scoreboard and the understated finishing details throughout the stadium, as tasteful in their way as Camden Yards is in its, were not a surprise. What's shocking is that in a region so disparate that it is often said to have no unifying theme at all, except a love of the Redskins, Nationals Park may offer the most definitive visual synopsis that can be found anywhere.
With expansive vistas from ramps, glass-walled restaurants, a home plate promenade and the entire upper deck, the stadium is a viewing machine -- that is, for those who are willing to wander. Arrive by Metro, stroll five minutes to a field-level seat and you'll miss it all. You'll enjoy a superior park, comparable to first-rate recent creations in Seattle, St. Louis, Philadelphia and San Diego. But you'll miss what makes the experience at South Capitol Street and Potomac Avenue so special.
A ballpark isn't just a place; it's a feeling. If it has no community identity, no sense of bonding, no coming together of all the city's demographic clans -- if you can't walk from the Wrigley bleachers to the Cubby Bear to hear Hank Sr. on the juke -- you ain't got no ballpark, son, you just got another stadium. Thanks to Nationals Park, with enough time to collect lore and share growing pains, we might just have ourselves a real ballpark someday.
Only two or three parks in America (I've seen them all) rival Nationals Park in drawing every core characteristic and constituency of the entire region into its encircling arms. Seldom has any park captured almost all of the best of its city, and just enough of the worst, too, while displaying the entire range of its region.
After walking around the construction site during the past year, often looking for a spot that captured the park's incipient character, I stumbled on the spot this week. Out of reportorial obligation, I visited "the worst seat in the park," Section 401, Row M, Seat 1, the $5 nest in the top row farthest down the third base line. There, our commonly held Washington life lies open in a 360-degree panorama. Many of the Nats' seats offer some or most of what you see from 401. But only the cheapest grandstand section has it all. For a kid who rode the streetcar to the 75-cent Griffith Stadium bleachers, that's a nice symmetry.
Behind me in 401, far across the Potomac, was the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, a couple of miles from my old high school. Next in view came Reagan National Airport where, like so many peripatetic Washingtonians, I've made several lifetimes worth of landings. Then came Crystal City, emblematic of the wealth of Northern Virginia, gleaming in the distance; for years, a spot nearby was deemed the perfect stadium site. But who could afford prime Arlington land?
Over your shoulder the Washington Monument looms so large it seems to be spying on the game, as if it were the world's largest knothole-gang interloper. If its red-dot windows were eyes, the Monument could peek straight at Austin Kearns in right field. And, to be sure, this is a park built for peeking. From South Capitol Street, you can look through large gaps in the facade to glimpse the scoreboard, the terrace stands and almost, but not quite, the outfield. Just don't try this while driving.
The next piece of eye candy is Washington National Cathedral, silhouetted on the horizon, representing the power and pomp that resides in Northwest Washington, perched on the highest point in the city. Nearer still is the U.S. Capitol. As you walk South Capitol, the dome materializes from behind trees to surprise you. Is it really so big, so close? But from 401, you don't just see the dome but the vast marble base, too. So, you say, casually putting your arm around the dome, does it look like Shawn Hill has his good stuff tonight?
Near the Capitol is the verdigris dome of the stately Library of Congress, where my parents, two of the town's typical government employees, worked for decades. A few blocks away sits the Northeast row house, bought on the G.I. Bill, where I grew up. From Nationals Park, countless fans will see their own personal landmarks all around them. You can't escape the thought: "I lived [or worked or worshiped or went to school] right there." That's how sense of place can coalesce in a ballpark.