Ballpark's Debut: Not Perfect, but Still a Triumph

(By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
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By Raw Fisherfrom Marc Fisher's Blog
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Grumpy editors, whiny stay-at-home fans and other chronically unsatisfied types were virtually begging for the bad news from Nationals Park on Sunday night. Surely, they said, it must have been a mess -- the roads, the trains, the shuttle, the food.

Well, not really. The Opening Night vibe was celebratory bordering on giddy. But nobody's perfect, so before moving along to the Ten Best Things About Nats Park, here are the obligatory Five Worst Aspects of Washington's new stadium:

1. Food lines were long and slow. There are vastly more outlets at the new park than there were at RFK. But queues snaked across the extra-wide concourses, blocking foot traffic. Lines were especially daunting at the park's biggest culinary hit, Ben's Chili Bowl (but there's a secret solution to this, which I share below), and at Mayorga Coffee carts -- hardly surprising on such a chilly evening.

2. The more interesting and varied food is on the lower concourse and concentrated in the left field corner. But this is a stadium built to be wandered; if you're hungry, go exploring.

3. Some fans found the prices scary. Sports historian Dennis Tuttle was disappointed to see that a $39 ticket ended up costing him $48.75 after Ticketmaster's fees and "convenience" charge, plus the outrageous $1.75 fee for being allowed to print the ticket at home. But plenty of folks paid $10 for a ticket (or even $5) and brought their own sandwich and water. Baseball relies more than any other sport on the casual fan of modest means, and there are thousands of cheap seats at Nats Park.

4. The scoreboard, stunning as it is visually, is not yet being used as a good communicator of information. It does not yet show both team's lineups throughout the game, and it only briefly shows how each batter has done in previous at-bats.

5. The security obsession that infected the government after the Oklahoma City bombings and 9/11 has wormed its way into the ballpark. WUSA (Channel 9) reporter Dave Statter witnessed uniformed Secret Service officers forcing a visitor from Minnesota to delete photos from his digital camera because the fan dared to photograph the stadium's exterior, perhaps including a security checkpoint. The Secret Service also tried to stop Channel 9 from shooting the building, but Statter rightfully told the officers to stuff it. Let's hope this silliness is limited to the day of the presidential visit to Nats Park.

Okay, enough whining. On to the good stuff:

1. The building shouts "fan-friendly," from the almost solid wall of food outlets to seats that face the action no matter how cheap the ticket. The center field gate is just a long toss from the Metro station exit, which is too bad, because the far more appealing entrance is the one few fans see, the dramatic ramp up into the home plate entrance at South Capitol Street and Potomac Avenue SE.

2. I'm not one for whiz-bang non-baseball distractions, but the interactive gaming facility behind the center field restaurant offers free MLB '08 PlayStation 3 game consoles, Guitar Hero games, karaoke and a driving simulator so new the instructions are still only in Japanese.

3. The amazing clarity of the scoreboard is the best ad I've seen for high-def.

4. The foul territory in some places provides plenty of running room for fielders to chase pop-ups, but behind home plate, the tight space means we are likely to see some exciting plays by catchers. I ran my hand along the edge of the granite-topped bluestone wall behind the plate and came up with scratches; imagine what might happen when a catcher barrels into that wall at full speed.

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