Say hello to Nationals Park

After a flurry of new yards around the turn-of-the-century stadium construction has gone off the boil in recent years. Sure Busch II opened in 2006 and was christened with a World Series win, but we are in a bit of a construction quiet spot right now—although that is set to change in the next five years as the Marlins, Yankees, Mets, Twins and Athletics all get new digs.

After relocating from Montreal to Washington, the old Expos franchise was always going to need a new stadium. The cavernous RFK didn’t cut it on the major league scene. It was an extreme pitcher’s park, was decaying and decrepit, and just wasn’t a very exciting place to watch baseball.

Indeed, as part of the relocation package, MLB insisted that the new ownership pony up for a new stadium. Fast forward to 2008 (after plenty of heated debate about who was paying for the thing) and Nationals Park was opened to much hoopla in the capital.

Today I want to take a look at the new yard, show you some photos and find out more about the new stadium. To this end I’ve listed the help of Nationals blogger, Charles Fliegel, of Nationals Review fame.

About Nationals Park

The park is located one block south of M street, SE, for those who know DC. The closest metro station is Navy Yard, on the green line. That is probably the best way to get to the stadium as parking is quite limited. In fact the team still operates the car parks at old RFK and puts on a shuttle bus to the new park. I don’t know about you but I’d prefer to take the metro than the bus.

Like many new parks there are a few irregular angles (it is sort of rhombus shaped) in the outfield, but actually the distances to the fence are reasonably symmetrical. The center field fence is 402 feet arching round to 336 feet at left field and 335 feet at right field. Right center is at 377 feet and left center is at 370 feet.

The capacity is a touch over 41,000 and the stadium opened on March 30, 2008, where Washington beat Atlanta 3-2 thanks to a Ryan Zimmerman walk-off home run—that is some way to notch a first win in your new home, although according to Elias that is the third walk-off homer in a new stadium. Incidentally the next game at Nationals Park drew the smallest crowd ever in a second game at a new facility. Clearly there is work to be done in Washington.

Let’s take a look at some pictures of the park courtesy of Charles Fliegel at Nationals Review.

Here is the view of the entrance from the Navy Yard metro station:

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Here is a look from center-right field:

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The impressive HD scoreboard:

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And, finally, what you see from the press box:

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A fan’s perspective

I asked Charles some questions about Nationals Park and the 2008 team.

John Beamer: The move from RFK to Nationals Park must finally make fans feel like the team has arrived in Washington proper. What has been the reaction of fans to the new facility?

Nationals Review: The reaction is overwhelmingly positive to the new facility. Despite dealing with RFK, many fans know what a great ballpark looks like as Camden Yards is less than an hour away. Regardless, most love the layout—it looks unique without trying to create false oddities on the playing field or too many strange turns at the warning track. The views from the wide concourses are very open and you can watch the game while ordering some pretty good food and looking at pictures of MLB Hall of Famers on all of the support poles. The seats are very comfortable and after doing a quick walk around I didn’t see one with a bad view.

John Beamer: Is there any sadness at all to leave RFK behind? If so what particular features will remain in the memory?

Nationals Review: I’m not sure that anyone will miss anything about RFK other than its ease of access. Nats Park doesn’t yet have its parking situation figured out. Other than that, I’m not sure many will miss the 600-foot distance from home plate in center field seats, or the ability to see down to the lower level concourse from under your upper deck seat.

John Beamer: It always amuses me that after Camden Yards was built there has been a move away from cookie cutter parks, yet by adopting a retro-urban look most facilities are becoming cookie cutter in a different way. What are the two of three distinguishing characteristics of the new park?

Nationals Review: I do think that Nationals Park has a unique feel to it, without being retro. It’s a beautiful park, but it has a very modern look to it. One thing that stands out to me is the area called the Red Porch/Red Loft. All the stadium’s seats are blue, except the left-center field seats, which are red and are called the Red Porch. It’s got a bar behind it, and a level above is the Red Loft, which has a bar you can saddle up to.

I think inside the stadium, the nice little touches like excellent local food and the batting cage make it a fun place to be. But what I’ve heard most raves from fans about is the gigantic HD scoreboard, which is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty unique now, although it may not be for long.

John Beamer: I know it is early yet, but is there any indication as to how the yard will play? Will pitchers or hitters have more fun?

Nationals Review:
So far the park has been pitcher friendly, although not as bad a RFK. It’s only April, and it’s been mostly cold and wet here, keeping the ball from sailing. But this is not a large park and the winds blowing off the Anacostia River in the summer could affect it in a variety of ways yet to be seen. I personally believe that the summer months, which are notoriously hot and humid in DC, will make it overall a hitter’s park. We should notice it favor the pitchers more in April and late September (and maybe someday, October), but the rest of the season will make people happy to hit there.

John Beamer: I watched the first game on TV and it looked awesome. As a Braves fan I can’t believe the walk-off home run but that’s life. I imagine people in Washington were pumped by that. Did you go? What was your reaction?

Nationals Review:
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to go to that game, but of course I watched it on TV. My reaction was that it was just a great ball game by both teams and ended with the best player on the Nationals finishing the game with late-inning heroics. What more do you want to see? Zimmerman’s in a slump now, but he is still considered the top guy on the team, so it was great to see him get that hit. It was also nice to see a decent job by a starting pitcher who wasn’t even on the team in early February. It was a great way to start off in a new stadium.

John Beamer: Since opening day I heard stories about attendance slipping a bit? Is that true and is Washington a long way from falling in love with the Nationals?

Nationals Review: You are absolutely right about attendance being poor so far, and I think there are several factors behind that. The new stadium is a draw, but the team at this point is not much of one. There is, as in any city, a dedicated and loyal fan base, but it’s not huge yet. Not surprisingly, the fans tend to skew younger—those DC-area people who grew up without a team have embraced the first one in their lifetime to play in the neighborhood. But this is only the fourth season here, and the second where they weren’t owned by MLB.

Under that ownership, they seemed to shed any major league talent and minor league prospect they could. So this is really, in my opinion, only the 13th month of the real rebuilding process. Starting from that point, a new team coming in to rebuild, I think the city is still a bit away from falling in love with them. But it’s understandable, and I think it will take some time.

Also, for the first time in 20 years, both the Capitals and the Wizards made the playoffs, and the city was buzzing about that. In a few weeks that will change, and focus will be more on the Nats. Finally, it wasn’t until this weekend that any parking was made available for most fans, which also had to discourage people from coming.

John Beamer: For those of use who sort of know DC can you please describe to us where the stadium is and how easy it is to get to? Also is there good parking or are all those facilities still pending?

Nationals Review: The stadium is right on the Anacostia River on South Capital Street, about two miles due south of the Capitol Building and the National Mall, but not a walk you’d want to make. It’s right off of the Navy Yard Metro stop, and really easy to get to via Metro even for someone completely unfamiliar with the city. Parking there is in a state of flux.

For the first few weeks, there was a massive campaign to get everyone to take public transportation, and that seems to have worked well. But it’s worked so well that they are now encouraging fans to drive if they want. There are only about 5,000 spots, and some of those are designated for season ticket holders, but the rest are now opened up to single game ticket holders. Also, fans can park at RFK Stadium and take a free shuttle to Nationals Park. The parking situation has yet to be resolved, and more needs to be done in order to not scare fans away.

John Beamer: With the stadium there was supposed to be a lot of ancillary development. What are the plans for this and what is the status?

Nationals Review: Plans are for a major overhaul of the area on the Anacostia waterfront, with the ballpark as the centerpiece. Just south of the stadium there is currently a construction project called Riverfront where several office and residential buildings, as well as a hotel, are bring built. To the east of the stadium, there is an area called The Yards which will have a combination of office, residential and retail space, as well as a large riverfront park.

There will also be a Riverwalk from the ballpark and Riverfront east to the Navy Yard, walking you through The Yards. The status of the area is that it’s still in the early stages of building. Remember that financing for the stadium didn’t get finalized and construction didn’t begin until May of 2006. Before that was finalized, there was still some talk of the team being moved elsewhere, so people were wary of making definite plans to build in the area. The stadium went up in a record 22 months and even had designs being changed and laid out while construction was taking place.

The surrounding neighborhood is being built at a more typical speed; 2009 and 2010 completion times for many buildings are probably realistic estimates.

John Beamer: OK let’s turn our attention from the stadium to the team. After a bright start the Nationals have struggled. What do you think is the ceiling for this team in 2008?

Nationals Review: I honestly believe this team is better than it is playing. The bullpen was supposed to be the strength of this team. Instead it has started poorly, but I expect it to recover. Their lineup should be better than last year’s, and I still think it will be. It is not an under-four-runs-per-game team. Meanwhile, they seem to have three starting pitchers in Perez, Redding and Lannan that can be effective.

This is three more than most people envisioned at the beginning of the year. If the bullpen can get back on track, I think that those three starters will go a long way towards helping this team compete in the short term. They are still a bit away from even being .500, but I don’t think 75 wins is out of the question.

John Beamer: With the new park, fans will hope that revenue will pour in that will be directed towards the team. Will this happen and when do you expect the Nationals will be able to contend in what is, quite frankly, always going to be a tough division?

Nationals Review: I do believe this team will be among the higher payroll teams in the league at some point in the future. The Nationals management is always a fan of referring to “The Plan,” that is to say, their long term approach to building this team from the ground up. Remember, when the new ownership group took over, they took over a team with few major league quality players and a barren farm system.

Stan Kasten has done an excellent job building up a minor league system that Baseball America ranked 30th two years ago to one they know rank 10th. I think next season more of these young players like Michael Burgess, Ross Detwiler and Chris Marrero will start seeing playing time with the major league squad. I don’t see them in the playoff mix yet in 2009, but I think they are set up to be a contender in 2010 and for several years after.

John Beamer: In your opinion are the front office and management set up right to succeed or do changes need to be made for this team to challenge?

Nationals Review: I don’t always agree with Bowden’s moves, but so far I have been relatively happy. I would have loved for them to trade someone like Chad Cordero already, because he probably was at peak value sometime last season, and I don’t think this team should have holding on to a decent but not great closer as a high priority. Overall, I really do think the plan is working itself out well, and if they can build a quality major league team with the young prospects they have, not only do they have the money to keep them, they can also go out and pick up one or two key free agents to finalize a strong roster.

John Beamer: Anything else we should know about the 2008 Nationals?

Nationals Review: They have some holes to be sure. They have no real middle-of-the-lineup power threat, and at this point in his young career, Ryan Zimmerman does not have the numbers to be a great #3 hitter. I’d like to see him bat fifth, except for the fact that there isn’t someone to then bat third. Pena has the most power, but he can’t hit consistently enough to be effective in that spot.

Nick Johnson is the closest thing they have, but I think whether you put him fourth or third, there is still a spot up for grabs. At the top of the lineup, to everyone’s surprise Christian Guzman has shown that since his Lasik surgery prior to the 2007 season, he can really hit enough to be of value. Felipe Lopez was mired in a terrible slump but has picked it up as of late, and while he shouldn’t ever hit with the power he had in Cincinnati, he can get on base. Those table setters could provide enough for the rest of the lineup to drive in runs.

Milledge has shown to be as good as advertised, and if they can somehow get Dukes to come along, I think they will be able to score some runs. The big problem with this team is trying to get a consistent starting rotation. They have young talent that may come up before the end of the season, but for now it will be interesting to see if Perez and Redding can keep up what they’ve been doing, and if young lefty John Lannan can hold down his spot in the rotation all season.

A final word

On a personal note I think it is great for baseball that we have a strong team in DC. Yes, it may reinforce the Northeast power axis, but on the flip slide it will act as a slightly southern counter to the dominance of New York and Boston.

Although it is still early, Nationals Park should provide the platform from which the team can compete. The next couple of years are critical. Despite the poor attendance the momentum is there.

Washington, welcome to The Show. May you prosper.

References & Resources
A huge thanks for Charles Fliegel from Nationals Review, without whose help this article would not have been possible.

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