By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
But does the fact that the alleys at Nationals Park are considerably shorter -- 377 in left-center, 370 in right -- mean it'll be easier to hit home runs? There are other factors involved. The shorter alley in right-center, for instance, is marked by a 14-foot wall, considerably taller than the eight-foot fences at RFK.
"That's a big wall," Kasten said, "so you're going to need a poke."
Still, most team officials -- and the players -- expect you won't need the kind of poke necessary at RFK. Cognizant of that, some Nationals pitchers are making adjustments -- even before they play an official game in the park. Last night's starter, right-hander Jason Bergmann, gave up three fly balls for every two grounders last season, a ratio that put him among the most likely pitchers in the NL to allow a fly. At RFK, no big deal. At Nationals Park, outs from the past might turn into homers. So Bergmann spent the spring working on a sinking, two-seam fastball that will complement his rising four-seamer.
"I'm not going to have the luxury of being a fly-ball pitcher as much," Bergmann said. "It's just to add another element."
All this, of course, doesn't take into account the elements themselves. As the park took shape, the Nationals commissioned studies on wind patterns in the neighborhood. "I have to tell you," Kasten said, "I'm very pessimistic about those things."
So the Nationals players did their own studies of the wind. Friday afternoon, it howled down Half St. SW and into the park through left-center field, but then appeared to whip around out to right. "I was standing in the outfield," said right fielder Austin Kearns, "and the wind was hitting me in the face. But then I looked up at the flags [in right], and they were blowing in."
Last night, the American flag in left sat limp in the early innings, but the flags above the scoreboard were stiff. If that is a pattern -- and no one is willing to say it is, yet -- Kasten believes it will change over the course of the summer, and even into next year. Construction projects could shape not only the ballpark's neighborhood, but how the park itself plays.
"It's going to change as one high-rise goes up, and then another high-rise to match it goes up," Kasten said.
Last night, there was not a single homer in the Nationals' 3-0 victory over the Orioles -- a very RFK-like development. Kearns probably hit the hardest ball, a line-drive double to left that drove in a run. He was asked if he hit it well.
"Yeah," he said, then sarcastically added, "Woulda been out of RFK."