By Marc Fisher
Monday, March 31, 2008
So, Mr. and Mrs. Taxpayer, what did you get for your $611 million?
A curly W mowed into the center field grass, a bright red clock of stars, a view of the construction cranes that count off a city's progress, a playground for a stressed-out people.
All that and a game that turns grown-ups into kids and bonds children with their dads.
Fans stepped off Metro last night, passed under arches of red, white and blue balloons, walked the red carpet along Half Street SE -- a street that until now served as one of Washington's ugliest back alleys -- and entered Nationals Park.
Whereupon their jaws dropped. They smiled for photos with Teddy Roosevelt and George Washington, walked the circumference of the new stadium and took in what the District of Columbia and the Clark, Hunt and Smoot construction companies built in a remarkable two years, on time and on budget.
This was a happy, nearly delirious crowd. I wouldn't have believed it until I heard it with my own ears, but people were even praising the cumbersome, jury-rigged bus system that shuttles fans from the RFK Stadium parking lots to the still-barren landscape that surrounds Nats Park.
"I would even pay $5" for the free shuttle, said Rich Park, 32, who made it from Annandale to the Guitar Hero games in the stadium's interactive play area in well under an hour. "As Washingtonians, we're kind of finicky. We're not really passionate yet about the Nats. But this place is just great. Now if the team gets better in the next few years, we could learn to love the game again."
For your $611 million, you get to spend more -- for seats that feel vastly closer to the action than did the stands at RFK, for the Ben's Chili Bowl half-smokes that fans are queuing up for as if they were perfectly grilled tubes of manna, for the Five Guys burgers and all the other ways to eat your hometown allegiance.
Joe Hawkins, a fan from Woodbridge, noted that as a Virginian, he isn't spending a penny of his tax dollars on this new pleasure palace. But he said D.C. residents ought not grumble about shelling out for the stadium because "sometimes you got to spend money to make money."
Twelve-year-old Brennan Jones, a Little League catcher from Falls Church, served up this strike from Econ 101: "The District's going to make so much money. We're paying for this place every time we come." Brennan expects to come very often; during Nats batting practice last night, he got pitcher Luis Ayala to sign his Nationals rally monkey. The kid is set, probably for life.
Fans didn't even mind having to spend absurd sums to snare Opening Night tickets on the secondary market. Jason Halliburton, 30, a police officer from Knoxville, Tenn., fell in love with the Nats and Washington when he and his wife honeymooned here during the team's inaugural season. Since then, he's made the nine-hour drive several times a season. There was no way he was going to miss this night. He shelled out $175.30 for a $10 ticket in Section 230.
"It's well worth my time and money," he said. "There's unlimited stress in my job. This makes me forget about all the rough things I've seen and just, for once, see the best in life."
An investment in granite, concrete and steel buys a new retail, residential and office neighborhood. It buys the president of the United States throwing out the first ball. And it buys a son showing his father what his boy has become.
Henry Hunter, a third-year Georgetown Law student, has worked in the Nationals' legal department for the past three years, toiling in the team's decrepit RFK office. Yesterday, he showed his father the splendors of the club level.
"I remember taking him to his first game in Oakland," said the father, also named Henry Hunter. "Now he's flying me up from Florida to see what he's done."
Baseball, as far too many poets remind us, is like that -- circles of life and all. So your $611 million also buys strained metaphors and wistful memories, and unending expressions of love for stuffed dead presidents.
"I love Teddy," said Malcolm Tarlton, a former NASA worker who lives in Upper Marlboro and hopes one day to see Theodore Roosevelt win the Nats' nightly presidents race. He is prepared to wait. He has waited before. "Do without something for 34 years and then see if it's worth it."
A first night is a time for reveling in the new, so the only whining to be heard came, characteristically, from the press box high atop the ballpark. The broadcasters, accustomed to much more prime locations at other parks, cracked wise about the view "from up here at our altitude," as Baltimore Orioles radio man Fred Manfra put it.
"The view from the booth is as if we were at the top of the Washington Monument," ESPN play-by-play man Jon Miller told me. "But the park looks beautiful." He stared up from the field to the sharply stacked seating decks, and somehow the La Scala opera house in Milan, another steeply raked house of dreams, came to mind.
"This is sort of the La Scala of American baseball," Miller said. "It's the setting of high drama, tragedy, even redemption. And then you go back to your everyday life."
That's what you get for your $611 million. Oh, and helmet sundaes, and from the cheap seats, the alabaster Capitol Dome, gleaming like nowhere else.