Monday, March 31, 2008

Take Me Out to the Ball Game...

Yesterday being a day without Caps hockey, The Peerless had a ticket to the Nationals’ home opener at Nationals [Corporate Name to be Selected Later] Park.

And what a nice park it is.

It does not have the instant charm of a Camden Yards with its distinctive warehouse façade looming in right field, or the scenic panoramas of PNC Park in Pittsburgh or AT&T Park in San Francisco.

But this is a ballpark that will age nicely and take its place in the roster of monuments this city has to offer.

We took Metro – the local subway provider – which was pretty much a given, given the predictions of the apocalypse with respect to close-in parking. The trip was pleasant – a train largely filled with Nats fans, even if it was several hours before the scheduled first pitch.

Upon exiting the train at the Navy Yard station – the closest to the ball park – the process of getting out of the station (which can be a chore even on a rush hour weekday) went as smoothly as one could hope, although the same might not be said of those in the escalator next to the one that I was riding, which was shut down in mid-transit, requiring a decent walk up the stairs.

The exit at Half Street (honest, there is a “Half Street”) was rather packed. For a moment, I thought of the “hot gates” of the movie, “300,” where hordes were funneled into a tight aperture of a path. But things went relatively smoothly, even when we arrived at the center field gate, where security was in force in anticipation of the arrival of the President for the inaugural “first pitch.”

The visual impression of the ball park was certainly not unusual for anyone who has been to Camden Yards, especially as one enters from the north end of Eutaw Street at that ball park. A pavilion empties into the lower seating bowl and playing field that are both below street level. It creates a sense of openness that one could never achieve in the multi-tiered donut of RFK Stadium. If anything, it reminded us a little bit of the Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, although Nationals Park is even more open in its concourses.

The concourses are wide, if oddly angled in places. The concession stands are numerous, although some could use additional space (the lines at Ben’s Chili Bowl and Five Guys were extraordinarily long, for example, even hours before the first pitch). For the record, we sampled the chili dog at the Hard Times Café. We’ll give it “three stars” (the bun didn’t hold up very well to the chili).

We were in the stadium long enough before the first pitch to be able to tour the entire circuit around each level. It has something of the look of an unfinished ballpark (especially the rest rooms, for some reason…maybe it was the concrete flooring), but not so much as we might have anticipated. The concourses provide fans with the chance to keep up with the action as they are largely open to the field, another significant departure from RFK. And, the concourses provide quite a panorama of DC, as one looks out from the stadium, from just about any vantage in the ball park. It isn’t a bad place to just take a stroll and look across the city, especially from the upper level.

Entering the seating area (our seats were in the 400-level), there was that sense of openness, but also one of being rather close to the action. The upper deck seems higher than RFK (owing to the suites below), but not so much that one feels detached from the action. But the attention-grabber was the scoreboard. It is all it was represented as being, in all its high-definition grandeur. In fact, it became a bit of a distraction at times, as one might have been drawn to it and away from the action on the field. As time goes on, we suspect this temptation will subside.

The seats were comfortable, as such things go, wide enough for those of us of a certain age (and gravity-challenged physique), and angled to the action on the field. The only problem was not architectural, but climatological – it was cold. Temperatures were in the 40’s, and there was a bit of a breeze up top, which made the choice of hooded sweat-shirt and gloves a wise one.

We will not belabor the details of the game, which you no doubt have already read or heard about. The President threw out the first pitch – a fitting occurrence, no matter one’s opinion of his tenure. The teams struggled with the offensive aspects of the game, and when things reached their climax, Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off home run was a fitting end to the inaugural game.

This being a “late” game (an 8:15 start), Metro seemed to have caught a break. Since this is, after all, Washington, the stands started emptying around the sixth inning as folks tried to beat traffic in anticipation of the work day the following day. So, by the time the game ended, just after 11:00 pm, the stadium was probably filled by what was more likely the sort of crowd that will be more common. Good thing…as fans filed out of the center field gate, they were funneled into that Half Street pass, which made the half-block walk to the Navy Yard station rather slow. Slow though it was, it moved steadily, and once at the station, it was of little problem to get through the fare gates and to the trains (would that a rush hour experience be as smooth on a regular basis). The trains were moved along – as one filled and left the station, another took its place. Generally, at least from our experience, Metro passed this test rather well.

The test of the ball park isn’t Opening Night – all ball parks look like palaces in that first blush of a first-ever game. And what glitches there were seem less “systemic” than merely a result of the “newness” of the ball park, where people have to find the game-day routines that work for them. The test will be in May…and June…and July, when that first blush wears off. But we think this ballpark will fare quite well in that regard. The Nats have hit a home run with Nationals Park.
photos: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images


DCSportsChick said...

Nice insights. We were there too, and greatly enjoyed the park. I'd advise against Hard Times' chili nachos, though, and get the loaded nachos from the nacho stand instead. The Hard Times nachos were kind of blah, even though they looked great.

tg said...

I went to the NJ Avenue entrance to the Navy Yard station after the game and there were still a lot of people there. So we got on the N22 bus that was just sitting there waiting and went to Union Station. Took about 10 minutes to get to Union Station (and it stops by the Eastern Market station as well if you prefer the Blue/Orange line) where there were Red line trains running fairly regularly, it appeared.

And in case you prefer, there's a full 5 Guys on 3rd Street about 3 blocks from the stadium. Somewhat cheaper too.

Jimmy Jazz said...

Very cool, Peerless.
I still have to root for my O's, but I'd like to get out to see the new stadium sometime this season. I think Camden Yards is about as "classic" a baseball experience one can get, short of driving to Wrigley or Fenway, but the thought of eating a Five Guys burger while watching a ball game...
It almost sounds too good.