Upon Inspection, New Home Has Some Sweet Aspects to It

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Imagine 25,000 people all smiling at once. Not for a few seconds, but continuously for hours. You won't see it at a tense World Series. But when a brand new ballpark opens, especially in a city that hasn't had such an experience for 46 years, people can't help themselves. Many fans at 1500 South Capitol Street on Saturday evening felt as if they been presented with an immaculate, 41,888-seat home-away-from-home, a mansion they can explore anytime they want for six months, discovering their own baseball neighborhood, their niche, their summer friends. Minimum cover charge for a ticket: $10.

Opening Night hasn't arrived quite yet. But for season ticket holders, workers who labored on the ballpark and assorted politicians and local dignitaries, Nationals Park had its unveiling on a crisp, bright and unabashedly joyous Saturday evening. Though the occasion was a mere Nats-Orioles exhibition game, adults acted like children, years or even decades erased from their faces. They came up Half Street by the thousands, shoulder to shoulder, a sea of color, mostly red, clearly visible from most of the park's seats.

"This place is incredible -- to finally be inside after looking at that Clark Construction [Web] camera everyday," said Jeff Sherman, a Washingtonian for 30 years. "It's amazing, so beautiful, so intimate," said Sherman's wife, Colleen, who has visited more than half the parks in the majors. "The colorfulness is like Philadelphia and the openness reminds me of Pittsburgh. But it's ours. It's like home already and we've only been here an hour."

This eruption of almost embarrassing emotion was supposed to happen on Sunday night in a game that actually mattered, but you can't fight the facts, or the looks on people's faces. "My dad took me to the Senators. Now I'm taking my 13-year-old son Charley," said Glenn Doerrman of Rockville. "We went straight to our seats in the [upper deck] terrace, Section 224 -- great seat, see the whole field, much better than [the similar] Section 401 in RFK. Can't beat $17 a ticket for a 20-game plan."

You can see the U.S. Capitol from that section, can't you?

"I don't know," Doerrman said. "I was too mesmerized by the field to notice."

What hit Washington this weekend is a phenomenon that has swept America and transformed baseball since 1991. That year, the White Sox opened a new ballpark. What a mess. The upper deck was so steep fans got dizzy. The next season, Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened and that changed everything. The golden age of ballparks had begun.

How does baseball survive scandals, work stoppages, rising ticket prices and astronomical salaries? Why has the old game broken attendance records almost every season, including last year? The answer: It's the glorious ballparks.

Are they worth the money? Has MLB mastered civic extortion, playing one city against another? That's a different story, a different day. For now, suffice to say that parks much like Nationals Park have probably saved the game from its worst self.

Tonight, Washington will officially join this glamorous party as MLB inaugurates its 16th new stadium in 17 years, with four more parks under construction or commissioned, including a new $1 billion Yankee Stadium. What the public is about to encounter at Nationals Park is so radically different from comically antiquated RFK that you might as well compare a 1962 four-channel black-and-white TV to the latest flat screen with 500 channels and high definition.

No wonder jaws dropped here. No wonder fans seemed evenly dispersed in every section -- nobody moving to a "better" seat. On such an occasion, who would leave his own seat? No matter how high the expectations, they seemed to be exceeded. "I've got tickets to the Phillies -- great stadium," said Joe Bak of Laurel. "This park is going to beat it."

This reaction is the norm everywhere. Few fans visit many parks. If you've seen a few, that's a lot. So, every town that gets a good new yard, much less an excellent one like the Nats', reacts with awe. Why not, especially since the parks that were left behind, like RFK, were despised. Imagine San Francisco's joy at leaving frigid Candlestick Park for unequaled AT&T Park or Cleveland switching from "the Mistake By The Lake" to broad-shouldered Progressive Field.

Now Washington gets to gasp, even its players. "When we came up out of the dugout to see the park for the first time [on Thursday night], it felt like the scoreboard was so big it was going to eat you," Austin Kearns said.

"We got it right. We knocked it out of the park," brags team president Stan Kasten. "The fan experience here will be as good as any park ever built." Then, Kasten is off and running, raving about "sight lines." But he's right. It may be Nationals Park's best strength.

Home plate is as close to the stands as the rules allow. The lower bowl is extremely deep (43 rows) with no space-eating intermediate crosswalks. So, it's further to a restroom but field-level seats are maximized. The mezzanine level is also unusually close to the action. Why? The Nats wanted two decks of suites, including the owner's box, higher than the mezzanine, not lower, as is customary, for more Capitol Dome views. Good for them. But the mezzanine seats are closer to the action than the $300,000 Lincoln Suites. The first row of the $24 Gallery is directly above owner Ted Lerner's head, only eight feet higher.

Finally, because all the suites are stacked behind home plate, not extended down the foul lines, the entire right field terrace is a whole level lower than in many other parks. When architect Joe Spear saw how restricted the Nationals Park footprint was, even smaller than Philadelphia, he decided to use every trick that his firm, HOK, had learned over 16 years, to pull every seat as close as possible. If Nats fans ever learn to cheer in this place, they'll be dangerous.

Get ready to be dazzled -- just like so many other cities. Both the main and upper concourses are twice the width of RFK's. Walk around the entire lower deck and still see the game. Plazas and viewing decks abound. The three best are in the Gallery behind home plate; in the upper deck left field corner, which has 270-degree knockout citywide views; and in the wide plaza under the scoreboard. Nationals Park has seven times the restaurant space of RFK and 15 escalators and elevators vs. one in all of RFK. On and on: a scoreboard four times as large, seven-to-16 inches more leg room between rows and 183 concession "points of sale" with so many varieties of food it's silly to list them.

So, do the Nats have the greatest park on earth? No, absolutely not. That's the whole point. It's probably not in the top 10, though it might someday sneak onto that exalted list with better parking and several years of dramatic development in Southeast.

Remember, this is a golden age. Ballpark competition is ludicrously ferocious.

At Seattle's Safeco Field some seats gaze at Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, the Space Needle and downtown. The place is gorgeous, except that it (unavoidably) has a retractable dome. Yet the Mariners' park ranks lower for me than (in no order), the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, (refurbished) Dodgers, Giants, Pirates and Orioles.

Washington's proper place, and its exceptional company, is in friendly rivalry with superb parks in San Diego, Cleveland, Colorado, St. Louis and Philadelphia. The quasi-theme parks in Houston and Cincinnati are fun, too, and classic old Kansas City isn't too far behind. After that, the "wow" quotient falls off fast.

But look at the list of parks -- 17 of them now, in my book -- that are so fine that you don't want to insult any of them by ranking them too specifically, except in the broadest categories. On Opening Night, or your first trip to Nationals Park, don't bother to grade, just gape. And enjoy. Come early. Walk up South Capitol Street to see the modern exterior, the "transparent" facade that makes the park a glowing beacon after dark. Stroll up the ramps on the first base side overlooking the Anacostia, then circle the entire Gallery concourse to that wonderful left field foul pole perch. This is a park, like Colorado and San Francisco, where the spirit of the place lives in the upper deck.

Then find your seat. Closer than you thought? See, you're smiling already.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company