Nationals Will Be Entering a New Dimension
Sunday, March 30, 2008
In the early innings last evening at Nationals Park, fans tested hot dogs and restrooms, scanned sight lines and seat backs. Nothing about the Washington Nationals' new ballpark resembles its predecessor, RFK Stadium, and the comparisons, once the park has hosted a month of games, will likely die, quickly and quietly.
Still, what about that first drive to the gap? How far would it travel? Which elements would affect it? Could it be, might it be -- yes! -- a home run?
For the fans and players who gathered for the park's first major league event -- an exhibition game between the Nationals and Baltimore Orioles -- there was perhaps no more pertinent question than how the park will play. The popular answer: We don't know, and we won't for some time. The answer might be quite different on a cool March night as opposed to a muggy August afternoon.
That, however, doesn't mean the Nationals themselves weren't trying to figure it out from the moment they first walked onto the field Thursday night, from the time they stepped into the box for batting practice Friday evening.
Outfielder Ryan Langerhans, a left-handed swinger who will start the season with Class AAA Columbus, had the distinction of hitting the first ball out of the park, a drive that landed in the Washington bullpen in right field during Friday's workout. He then crushed a ball to center, one that sailed into an open space beyond the grassy knoll that serves as the batter's eye. He hit them both well, he said, legitimate home runs. Neither, though, would have been out of the Nationals' old home, cavernous RFK Stadium.
"Not close," Langerhans said.
Indeed, the scrutiny over how Nationals Park will play arises not only because some newer parks -- notably, Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park and Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park -- have developed into places where routine fly balls become homers, giving rise to a style of baseball Nationals President Stan Kasten calls, derisively, "arena baseball." That would be enough to engender curiosity among fans and players alike, but the Nationals are particularly anxious because of where they spent the last three seasons: RFK.
"It definitely played bigger than any other park," said new catcher Paul Lo Duca, who spent the previous two years with the New York Mets.
The evidence of that is both circumstantial and statistical. Washington closer Chad Cordero remembers, in his halcyon days of 2005, a ball crushed by Atlanta's Chipper Jones to right field.
"I put my head down, because I knew it was gone," Cordero said. "And then I looked up, and [former National José] Guillén was catching it on the warning track."
Such tales are too numerous to recount, hitters kicking the dirt in frustration as they watched balls caught at the warning track, pitchers exhaling, their ERAs preserved another day. Though the power alleys at RFK were labeled at 380 feet, they weren't truly at the midpoint between the foul pole and center field, but were rather closer to the lines. The true alleys were closer to 395 feet -- an absurd shot.
Thus, home runs were harder to come by at RFK. From 2005 to '07, National League teams averaged 1.04 homers per game. But Nationals' opponents, when playing at RFK -- a measure which discounts Washington's own occasionally feeble lineups during those years -- managed only .84 homers a game.