Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Nationals Park

Atlanta Braves @ Washington Nationals
March 30, 2008

Nationals 3, Braves 2

W: Jon Rauch
L: Peter Moylan
HR: Chipper Jones (ATL), Ryan Zimmerman (WAS)
Attendance: 39,389
Time of Game: 2 hours, 22 minutes

Stadium Facts

Location: Washington, DC
First Game: March 30, 2008
Capacity: 41,546
Type: Open
Surface: Grass

Although my official tour of the 30 MLB stadiums ended in 2007, that was hardly the end of my trips to new baseball parks. As I mentioned in my last post, St. Louis had already opened a new stadium since my visit there and Washington opened their new park in 2008. So I visited those two parks in 2008 and have made trips to three other brand new stadiums in the years since. The first stop was at a ballpark I have been to at least 50 times the past three years, Nationals Park in Washington, DC.

After moving to our nation's capital in 2005, the Nationals spent three years at the dated and not particularly well maintained RFK Stadium. If baseball was going to survive its third stint in DC, the franchise was going to need a first class stadium. In the spring of 2008, that is exactly what they got.

Nationals Park is situated in southeast DC on the shore of the Anacostia River, just a little over a mile due south of the Capitol building. Although there is plenty of potential, the stadium's location is probably its biggest drawback. It is mostly an industrial and residential area with very little commerce. This was supposed to change shortly after the Nationals moved in, but the economic downturn has postponed a lot of local projects. So there is not much to do or see in the immediate vicinity of the ballpark, which is very unusual in Washington. The location isn't all bad though. The park is very easy to get to via public transportation, with a Metro stop just a block away from the main entrance to the stadium. This is an absolute necessity in a city with so much gridlock on the roads. Another plus about the location is that you can get some pretty nice views of the city from the upper deck, particularly on the first base side.

In my view, Nationals Park is the first stadium built in the last 20 years which did not attempt to implement a retro look or feel. I said "first" rather than "only", because I would say the same about Target Field in Minnesota. Unlike most newer parks, Nationals Park does not have a brick exterior. Rather, it has a gray colored concrete and siding exterior which fits in well with most other DC buildings. It is a wide open stadium, especially in left and center field. The primary entrance to the stadium is in center field, where there is a huge concourse situated behind all of the outfield seating areas. There is an extensive selection of concessions and dining areas throughout the park, including the very popular Red Porch an Red Loft in center field.

The seating area features the typical three levels in foul territory, with gaps between sections of the upper levels, much like San Diego and Philadelphia. There are also a lot of lower level seats in the outfield, unlike RFK Stadium which had no such seats. There is a second deck in right field with an enormous HD scoreboard above it. Although my season tickets have always been in left field, I have sat in various locations throughout the park and am yet to find a bad seat. Some of the upper deck seats are quite high, but still provide a great view of the field and are very reasonably priced anyway.

Although it isn't quite the pitchers paradise of RFK, Nationals Park is still a great pitchers park. The biggest difference moving over from RFK is that it no longer takes a ridiculous blast just to clear the wall for a home run. But you still don't see many cheap ones hit in this park. The dimensions to the right field gap are shorter than left, but the higher wall in right does take some home runs away. One final observation about how different the old and new parks are is that there is actually some air flow in Nationals Park. Not that it is particularly windy, but there is an occasional breeze. At RFK, the lack of air movement created some very steamy summer nights.

I could have picked any number of games to count towards my official visit to the park, but I decided to go with the big one: the first regular season game played at Nationals Park. I had actually been in the park the day before for an exhibition game against the Orioles. But this one was a Sunday night game on ESPN and the first game of the 2008 season played in the United States (there were a couple games played in Japan the previous week). Just as he did for the return of baseball to DC in 2005, President Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch. It was the second of three presidential first pitches I have seen in person. As you would expect, the stadium was jam packed for this historic game. And what a game it was!

To give you some idea how bad the Nationals were in 2008, their starting pitcher for this Opening Day game was Odalis Perez who went 8-11 with a 5.57 ERA the previous season. The much more formidable Tim Hudson got the start for the Braves. Perez starting things with a bang, striking out the first batter, Kelly Johnson. The Nats offense wasted no time setting ballpark milestones either. They scored the first two runs in the bottom half of the first. Christian Guzman led off with a hit and scored on a double by Nick Johnson. Austin Kearns followed with a single to score Johnson. The Nats were off to a quick 2-0 lead.

Perez pitched surprisingly well in this game. The Braves didn't touch him for a run until the fourth inning when Chipper Jones hit the first Nationals Park home run to deep center. I found it quite fitting that Jones was the one who got the first home run because he seemed to hit home runs in every game I saw him play at RFK. He easily had the best home run ratio of any player I saw in person in that park. Anyway, he picked up right where he left off with a home run in the new stadium as well, but the Nats continued to lead by a run.

This 2-1 lead held until the ninth. Jon Rauch came in for the Nats to try to nail it down. But a one out double by Mark Teixeira put Rauch in a bit of a jam. Martin Prado pinch ran and advanced to third on a ground out and then scored on a passed ball by catcher Paul LoDuca. The perfect night was ruined, or so it seemed. Peter Moylan came in to pitch for the Braves in the bottom of the ninth and quickly retired the first two hitters. But then Nationals star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman came up to the plate. He blasted a 1-0 pitch into the seats in center field, giving the Nats a walk-off 3-2 victory. It was a fitting end to a very exciting night in DC.

This game was not a sign of things to come for the Nationals, however. They had a dreadful season, finishing with the worst record in baseball at 59-102. On a positive note, this poor season led to them having the first pick in the draft which they used on Stephen Strasburg. Meanwhile, the Braves also went on to have a miserable season, losing 90 games and finishing ahead of nobody but the Nats.

As most people know, the Nationals have had a rough six years in DC so far, finishing in last place every season except one. However, it should be noted that they have risen to the occasion in the three most anticipated games in franchise history: the first game back in DC in 2005, this stadium opener in 2008 and the Stephen Strasburg debut game in 2010. All three were exciting Nats victories. Unfortunately, those types of performances have been few and far between. There is hope for baseball to be successful in DC though. Nationals Park is a great place to see a game and they will have no trouble filling it if they ever field a competitive team. But only time will tell if that will ever happen.

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Next stadium: New Busch Stadium, St. Louis