By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008
On the day he arrived to help open the latest of these half-billion-dollar ballparks, Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones made sure to be at Nationals Park ever so early. It was 2:30 p.m., almost six hours before the first pitch, but there was so much to do.
He changed in the spacious new visitors' clubhouse that teammate Mark Kotsay would later say is "almost as nice as our home clubhouse in Atlanta." Then he walked out the door, past the visiting team's cafeteria complete with a grill, the visiting team's sprawling conference room, the visiting team's video and computer room with what appeared to be high speed internet access, past the gigantic visiting team manager's office, through another door, down a long flight of stairs, through a complex of indoor batting cages, into the dugout and finally onto the sparkling new field.
Once on the grass he began what has come to be an annual rite for a player in his 15th year: feeling out a new stadium.
They sprout like dandelions all over Major League Baseball -- 16 new concrete and steel edifices in the last 17 years. Each brings its own quirks, from the way the late-day sun hits the upper deck fa¿ade to the skip of the ball as it careens off an outfield wall. And each time he is confronted with a different stadium, Jones figures he best assess every element lest the knowledge might matter at some point during the season.
"I probably prepare a little differently than a lot of players do," he said -- a nod to the fact he has done this for a decade and a half. "I'm pretty thorough when it comes to getting ready to play. But I want to know if there is a short, dribbling grounder, do I run and charge it? How do I play a bunt? Knowing all this might save my pitcher a few runs late in a game."
So yesterday, when he walked onto the field for the first time, he took with him a handful of baseballs, stood on the dirt halfway up the third base line and began rolling them toward the base. This, he said, gave him a sense of how the ball might roll down the line on a bunt. Then he asked a coach to hit him some ground balls, taking special care to see how the ball hit off the lip of the grass on the edge of the infield dirt and how it skidded off the ground once it hit the dirt.
Because they had never been to this stadium before and because there wasn't the normal off day that teams have before opening games in a new park, the Braves took an extra-long batting practice -- an hour and a half, almost twice the usual amount. They also did something they probably won't do the rest of the season: fielding practice.
Jones used every minute to make some kind of observation. He noticed there was a decent amount of space between third base and the edge of the stands, enough to know he has room to chase down a foul popup, especially at the part a few feet from the end of the dugout where the seats seem to jut a little extra far back from the field. He also paid close attention to the way the stands look behind the first baseman when he threw. Sometimes they can create a strange optical illusion with the way they slide back from the field.
These, too, might seem like small things but to Jones every one of these quirks could prevent him from making an error or running extra hard after a pop fly. It might be worth a run, maybe a victory or perhaps even a division championship. You never know. And Jones has learned never to leave any of this to chance.
He would hate to later realize that the extra hour he didn't spend on the field at Nationals Park yesterday was the difference between the playoffs or an autumn spent at home.
"That's part of my job," he said.
And what did Jones think of the new park?
He likes it. The field seems to be in good shape, no strange bounces. The fences are significantly closer to home plate than they were at the Nationals' previous home, RFK Stadium. He noticed this immediately during batting practice when he hit a normal fly ball to left field and then watched it drop over an advertiser's sign 350 feet away for a home run.
In all, he enjoyed it a great deal more than RFK, which is the sentiment of most players.
"Baseball players are particular," he said. "We don't like sharing stadiums with football teams or playing in stadiums that were built for football. When it's built for football the configurations are all different and the lighting is different. You can tell this is a nice park."
Then he went back into the dugout, past the batting cages, up the stairs, through the door, past the manager's office, the computer center, the conference room, the cafeteria and into the spacious new visitors' clubhouse when he sat in a giant leather chair he never would have been able to enjoy at cramped RFK and watched auto racing on one of the room's many flat screen HD TVs.
Another day in another of baseball's sparkling new palaces.