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

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.

5. With seats reaching down to the field all around the park, this stadium feels much more intimate than dual-purpose RFK -- a feeling that burst through as Ryan Zimmerman's walk-off homer brought the crowd to its dancing, jumping feet. I did miss RFK's bouncy seats at that moment.

6. The food is a huge improvement over RFK's dreary fare. Some items that won praise are Ben's half-smokes, Noah's Curly W pretzels, Five Guys burgers, Gifford's Dingers (vanilla ice cream between two chocolate cookies) and Mayorga coffee. (I did hear grumbling about the lack of hot dog vendors in the stands.) My kids begged me not to give this away, but I feel obliged to let you know that you need not wait in the long queue at the Ben's Chili Bowl stand. The same Ben's dogs and toppings are available at Noah's Pretzels and several Nats Dogs stands.

7. Ryan Zimmerman.

8. Metro did its job well. At game's end, there was the inevitable clot of people clustered at the Navy Yard station, waiting to get through the turnstiles, but it only took about six minutes to get past the gates, and then it was clear sailing to the platform. Metro could have done better at stacking trains, but the throng moved smoothly and quickly.

9. The Lerners are a class act, many fans told me, especially in comparison with Redskins owner Dan Snyder and Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Though baseball fans tend to be nostalgic, little was said in praise of RFK. Rather, I heard overwhelming gratitude -- to the Lerners, the construction team and former mayor Tony Williams, who was shamefully ignored in the pre-game ceremonies.

10. Walk-off home run. Zimmerman, again. Give that man a contract.

One more thing: Teddy is never going to win. Ever. Ever, ever, ever.

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