Every new major league ballpark always gets a second chance to make a first impression — when it gets the All-Star Game. But that stadium darn well better maximize the opportunity; a third “Hello, world” moment may never come.
For Washington, Nationals Park and the Lerner family, that chance to make a “second first impression” is exactly one year away with the 2018 All-Star Game. Few new parks have needed or deserved that second chance more than Nationals Park.
The first Opening Day, which Nationals Park had in 2008, is expected to be a rough draft of greatness. For Nationals Park, it was particularly rough because the stadium was only part of a larger D.C. development of the Southeast waterfront. The park itself was attractive enough. But everything around it for many blocks was a mess of construction, gravel pits, cement mixers and more stray dogs than citizens.
Luckily, the All-Star Game is only awarded after a city and its team owner give the high sign: Our grand stadium project is pretty much finished. For the Nats, delayed by the Great Recession, that took nine years; every one of them was needed. Even now, it will be a close fit to put the best face on a booming, affluent but still unfinished neighborhood that will ultimately define the vibe and appeal of a ballpark that was intended to be a center for community as well as games.
Will Nationals Park symbolize a baseball triumph that’s also part of a bigger social victory, turning a part of the city that never had a breath of life into a beautiful two-mile-long riverfront vista, from the ballpark at one end to the Navy Yard at the other? By next July, will Southeast be hollering to its adjacent neighbor, the just-emerging Southwest waterfront, with a 20,000-seat pro soccer stadium due to open next June, “Come on, it’s your turn to pull on the rope?”
Or will the whole shebang be a warning track out, not a home run, as we mutter, “Maybe we would have been ready for an All-Star Game in 2019 or 2020?”
Miami just got put through its all-star paces at flamboyant, controversial Marlins Park. All of baseball is congregating in one place. To evaluate, judge — and rank. Nobody is quite rude enough to phrase it that way. But everybody knows it.
Since 1976, I have covered many All-Star Games for The Washington Post, including the first played in 24 of the current 30 parks. The baseball herd, of which I am a part, descends on each new or remodeled stadium like a bunch of food snobs awarding Michelin stars. We pick it apart. We compare everything from seat sightlines to size of bathroom stalls to the quality of the mountain range, city skyline, local landmark or nearby river that gives it a sense of place. And if it has no sense of place, no uniqueness or if it’s far outside its city in No Place In Particular, like a half-dozen parks, we subtract lots of points.
Is the ballpark part of a vibrant or interesting neighborhood with a range of local restaurants and bars? Are there good hotels within walking distance? How efficient and clean is public transportation? How is the parking? And, this is bigger than you would think, what is the ugliest thing in sight — the eyesore that begs to be mocked — like those scrim-shielded garages beyond left field at Nationals Park? Some of the good will be missed, none of the bad.
Once MLB’s executives and media think they “know” a city’s park, they have little reason to explore the area again. That’s why every town gets to drag them back for an All-Star Game. What should the D.C. government, the Lerner family and Nats fans hope that next summer will bring?
Let me tell you what I see. And how I think Washington should frame its park next July, as a symbol of what baseball and the District have helped each other accomplish. There’s catch-up to be done here. First, on what Nationals Park was always intended to be — a break from MLB’s architectural past and a bridge to its future. Second, on the social purpose of a publicly funded park that was meant to be one catalyst in an ambitious blight-to-delight transformation of a wasted desolate area that even a Capitol Hill-raised native like me didn’t know existed.
On both scores, Nationals Park worked. With another year of work and a bit of luck, will that be obvious by the All-Star Game? I don’t know. That’s the test.
Every time I arrive at Nationals Park and walk across South Capitol Street to the home plate gate, I look 15 blocks to the north and see the U.S. Capitol building framed perfectly in the distance. Long ago, many hoped for such Capitol views inside the park, too; many are now bummed. The price of Southeast Washington prosperity is open space; Nationals Park soon will be almost encircled to the north by new buildings that block iconic D.C. views. That always will be a mark against the park.
However, upper-deck panoramas, especially from the gallery platform behind first base and another platform behind the left field pole, offer some of the best views of the entire metro area — D.C., Maryland and Virginia, the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, the Washington Monument and Washington National Cathedral.
Once you have noted that the interior of Nationals Park is merely pretty, a red-white-and-blue cheerful place but not one of the game’s breathtaking cathedrals, you have said the worst that can be mustered about the place. As a functioning park, however, it “plays true” every year — the best park in the majors for equal fairness to pitchers and hitters. One reason the Nats have such a good record of player evaluation is because, unlike many parks, their home does not distort their view.
Almost everything else about Nationals Park deserves some level of praise. The Nats’ triangular offices, which come to a point, evoke the East Wing of the National Gallery, designed by I.M. Pei. On its side is a four-story photo of Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, symbol of a perennial power club. The top of the park is rimmed for much of its circumference with what looks like a gigantic silver jet wing or a huge scythe. As art, just okay. As symbol, it brags: 21st century.
There’s not a red brick anywhere, inside or out, or any retro reference whatsoever to the baseball world of 50 to 70 years ago — those post-World War II years — that MLB still thinks is a golden age and that serves as a model to at least 24 of its 30 parks. If you say that they look “old,” they say, “Thanks.”
Nationals Park is an image of modern baseball: sleek, clean, glass and shining steel. Its main material is pale limestone, not marble to be sure, but it’s the closest alabaster look-alike. For a new team in Washington after a 33-year hiatus, for new modern generations of fans, this is truly a contemporary fresh-start home park.
Sometimes I meander past the first base side of the park, then I turn just 50 yards to start the two-mile Anacostia River walk. How far I go depends on how many spacious parks, spouting fountains, playing kids, strolling and biking adults, restaurants, shops, condos and new apartments I’m in the mood to admire.
You can read all you want about a “development project,” but you don’t know if it’s a civic boon or a boondoggle for builders until it exists. Big money has been made. But whatever I imagined as the ceiling for a best possible outcome on the Anacostia 10 years ago has been blown sky high.
Sometimes I think, “Nationals Park — and everything around it — is still a mystery to half the Washington area and to almost all of the rest of the country.”
And I wonder: How much will the 2018 All-Star Game change that? Does Washington, do the Nationals, do the Lerners, grasp the second-impression value of that week?
They better because it’s only going to come once.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.