Like it or not, when it comes to the Nationals fan experience, there’s the Half Street Fairgrounds and then everything else. For five years, the bare-bones outfit set among shipping containers was the only option for people looking to buy a beer, outside and legally, before a game at Nationals Park. When news broke that the Fairgrounds’ land was acquired by JBG, who have plans to build a mixed-use development at the site, some thought it might be gone immediately.
As it stands now, it appears we could be in the last season of the venue that’s become synonymous with game day on Half Street.
For a franchise that’s celebrating its 10th season, and eighth at its current park, there’s still an identity component of fanhood that’s missing. There’s been no atmosphere like Wrigleyville or Yawkey Way that popped up. For the most part, the neighborhood around the yard has developed aside from baseball, creating a rather nice place on non-game days. If Fairgrounds (which existed in previous iterations as The Bullpen and Das Bullpen) goes away, the landscape looks bleak for a defining characteristic of Nats Town.
Monday, about an hour before first pitch, a group known as the 7 Line Army was holding court and chanting for video. Tony Felt, wearing an Anthony Rendon jersey, interrupted that party and photobombed the shot.
It was the kind of organic moment that probably doesn’t happen inside the ballpark or at a bar. He considers Fairgrounds a staple, and a vital part of Washington establishing itself as a baseball town.
“Every other stadium has something like this outside of their stadium. We have nothing. People get off the Metro, they may go to one of the restaurants. We went to one of the restaurants around here, and it was like fifteen bucks for these fancy foo-foo D.C. types things, it’s not like baseball. So, this right here, you can mess with opposing fans, drink the regular cheap beer. It’s real baseball, America-style,” Felt, 37, who lives in Fairfax said. “Every time we come we stop here. If it’s leaving, that’s the way it is in D.C. That’s why when you look at this, this is what fans are like in real baseball cities. If you want D.C. to be a real baseball city, you gotta have something like this … where real fans can hang out.”
Alternatively on Monday, a few diehard tailgaters in the N Street SE lot (which cost $40) were grilling and doing their usual routine. Season tickets holders since the team first arrived at RFK Stadium, they take matters in to their own hands, and weren’t too upset with news of the Fairgrounds’ potential demise.
“I think it’s a part of it but not a huge part of it. I think you get a nice experience with tailgating and a nice experience inside as well. So they do a pretty good job of offsetting that,” Jack Crowder of Falls Church said. “It draws a younger crowd, out here, I think. You go out and have cheaper beers and stuff like that. As far as the image of the stadium, you gotta fill the holes in the ground and make it look nice and build around it,” Brian Muehleid of Annandale added.
Further east, Bluejacket brewery was hosting a block party of sorts, catered by Red Apron butchery. Cornhole players drank craft beer while a DJ was playing Maxi Priest. With the commissioner in town to announce that the 2018 All-Star Game will be played in D.C., this updated version of the traditional hot dog and a beer could become the norm.
For a place that’s really nothing more than a receptacle for beer, food trucks and portable toilets, it’s become an endearing component of being a Nationals fan. Co-owner Jason York says time will tell regarding the lot, but he doesn’t bemoan the changing landscape.
“There were no other options before we opened. I get e-mails every day from people asking if we’re going to be there. We’re hoping that we are. We’ll be here as long as we can,” York said Monday afternoon. “But it is good now that there are other options. For the last five years, we’d been it.”