Checking off the Ballparks

It’s been a long time since I collected a new ballpark (two Septembers ago in Kansas City). So it was time to add one. And why not one that is not only new to me, but new?

Friday and Saturday I made my first (and surely not last) visits to Nationals Park in D.C. Conveniently accessible to the Navy Yard Metro stop, the ballpark is plunked down in a rapidly transitioning neighborhood that is soon to be the home of Half Street, a development of retail, entertainment, office, and living space that should make the ballpark more of a destination, even if they don’t manage to make the baseball team a better draw.

For now, though, the ballpark is the story. Coming out of the metro and down the short walk to center field, the ballpark opens before the fan with an excellent view from center field. The center field gate is wide open to the ballpark. Fans enter into a food mall area with a wide variety of food stands that serve excellent quality baseball park favorites and some local flavors. (Back to the food later.)

The “curly W” logo is everywhere in red and the seats are invitingly blue, the expected D.C. color palette. To the left of the center field gate is an area of Nintendo games (I seem to remember it being free, but I may have been overwhelmed with the smell of chili), then the baseball fast pitch games. There are friendly PNC ATMs everywhere. I got in line for one of those behind a guy who had apparently never used an ATM before, because a transaction that took me about 30 seconds took him a couple of minutes. But that’s not the fault of the ballpark.

Walking the wide open concourse of the lower level, my friend, who is a real beer aficionado, noted the number and variety of beers offered, but wasn’t entirely happy until she found the bar just beyond first base that had some ales on tap (I can’t give you names, I can’t drink beer–allergy to hops–but does Red Hook make sense?). There was also a decent variety of liquor, but no frou frou drinks, which was a positive in my book, but possibly a negative for others.

Saturday we sat behind the Nats dugout on the first base side, with a great view of everything. Friday night we sat upstairs along the left field line. There’s a shortage of concessions on that level, but the lower level is down a ramp and back up via escalators, so it isn’t too inconvenient, unless a rain storm knocks out one of the escalators (can you tell we had a rainstorm Thursday just as I went for the Dippin’ Dots?).

The ballpark has a nice open feel to it. But also the feeling of being in a city, in a neighborhood, which is nice. The scoreboard in right field is an HDTV, a plenty big screen. The Nats display a pregame lineup that includes regular fan contest features, a Q&A with a player from a fan, and a vignette with the racing presidents. During the game, you get the regular lineups and information. But the other small boards that show balls and strikes for the current batter with his information are hard to locate. Other ballgames’ scores and situations are shown on their own scoreboards, but I’ve seen it done better (in Philadelphia at Citizens Bank Ballpark, for example). And nowhere was there board showing pitch type and speed.

The concourses are wide, and the food stands, even those that are in little carts, are off to the sides, so they, and their quite managable lines, don’t get in the way. And rest rooms are plentiful, clean, and even with a good-sized crowd, not overburdened.

May I just say that I am in love with the racing presidents? They have it all over the racing sausages found here and there. There’s plenty of personality, especially with Teddy (Roosevelt) who’s plush giant head wears a constant grin so cheesy that you can’t help but smile. George, Tom, and Abe are fine in their stately presidential ways, but Teddy is the best! It is a running joke that Teddy is lazy or befuddled. He never wins. Oh, and the Geico Gecko is always along for the race. I’m not sure if he is a cheerleader or an official, though.

Now for the food. It is apparent that unlike many ballparks, and like the San Francisco park (the name of which has changed so many times I refuse to keep track any more), the concessions are not all run by the same food services company. This is the way to offer concessions. The competition between vendors leads to much better variety and quality of foods and beverages. Local favorites Ben’s Chili Bowl, which serves chilimac, chili, chili dogs, and wicked looking chili and cheese fries, and Five Guys Burgers & Fries are offered. There are great nachos (best ones I’ve had that I didn’t make myself) with actual fresh chips and tasty, good quality toppings (real grated chedder cheese, people!). There were a variety of hot dogs and sausages, all made on grills, and without a steam table (or soggy bun) in sight. In addition to Five Guys there were other burger stands that served a tasty (by the witness of ballpark neighbors) burger. They sure looked good. There are four different types of ice cream stands, the aforementioned Dippin’ Dots (which I LOVE), scooped ice cream, soft serve ice cream, and gelato. Even two kosher food stands. It’s the first time outside of SF that I’ve left feeling like the ballpark food services weren’t a ripoff!

The Red Porch, a restaurant downstairs and a sports bar upstairs, is located in center field. We stopped in the restauarant but it seemed rather grim and fast foody. Better vittles were available elsewhere and there was nothing about the atmosphere that made it an attractive option. Possibly the only strike against the ballpark, really. The sports bar upstairs was full on Friday night with fans watching the game and the seventh Phelps medal. That race (you remember, the .01 touch win) got the biggest roar of the night.

There is a bit of jingoism (you are in the nation’s capital). If you aren’t offended by teams using the military as a prop to get crowd reaction, you won’t even notice. But if, like me, you think the military is too good to be used shamelessly for profitable promotion, you may have to go to the concourse during the presentation of the colors (it appears they have a full color guard every night) and the salute to some military branch that seems to happen with regularity. Of course, here, the military is a big fan constituency, so maybe they’re just playing to the patrons.

In any event, I highly recommend a trip to the nation’s capital to visit the new ballpark. And if you’re going to see your home town team on a road trip, even better. Because as of now, the Nationals are excellent hosts–likely to leave you smiling with the result, not just because of the food.

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