A Brand-New Ballgame: The New Stadium of the Nationals

The new home of the Nationals, with lots of attractions and almost no bad seats, may prove to be one of baseball’s best places for enjoying the game. But don’t expect to see the Capitol dome—and take Metro.

By: Marc Sandalow

A great ballpark defines its city. Camden Yards shows Baltimore’s brick-and-mortar roots. The ivy at Chicago’s Wrigley Field turns a lush green in chorus with the Midwest summer. The Bay Bridge beckons beyond San Francisco’s AT&T Park, and the Gateway Arch looms over St. Louis’s Busch Stadium.

So what in the new Nationals stadium on the Anacostia River says Washington?

The answer is not so obvious.

There are cherry trees over left field that should be in their full glory each year right around Opening Day. There are glimpses of the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument for fans in some upper-deck seats. There’s a notch in center field that mirrors the crook in DC’s old Griffith Stadium where a tree once stood. And there are the $300 seats behind home plate that serve as a reminder that in this city, money buys access.

But it will take a little effort to appreciate the glass-and-limestone exterior, which the architects intend to reflect the city’s monuments. The Capitol is obstructed by too many buildings to be much of a presence inside the park. And the old-fashioned red brick that has provoked oohs and aahs at retro parks across the country was rejected here as not reflective of the capital’s character. “Washington is not a factory town,” stadium architect Marshall Purnell says. “It’s a city of monuments.”

At first glance, this is a park that could just as easily be located in Anaheim, California, or Arlington, Texas. The outfield opens to the north facing the Capitol, yet the vista that most patrons see consists of two concrete parking garages and a rapidly developing skyline of ten-story office buildings.

If the Nationals’ new home is to go down in the annals of great American ballparks, that will come from the way fans experience the game rather than from an iconic view of the city.

The good news is that by almost every measure—views of the playing field, intimacy, openness, walking-around space—the park is a big improvement over what we’re used to.

RFK was an alien spaceship, a 46-year-old multipurpose facility that served the Senators, the Redskins, DC United, the Rolling Stones, and the Grateful Dead. Its cavernous steel-and-girder construction was built for efficiency—so lacking in soul that baseball historian Philip Lowry said it looked as if it were “designed by Stalin.”

The Nationals’ new park is built for baseball. The foul territory is small, the walls are short, the grandstand is tightly shaped around the diamond, and every one of the 41,222 seats is angled toward home plate.

The stadium’s architects say the glass walls along South Capitol Street and the openness of the outfield, both of which allow views into the park from the outside, offer a “transparency” that reflects the nation’s capital—an assertion likely to prompt comment from the chattering class.

Yet if the new ballpark is to distinguish itself from other modern-era stadiums built since Camden Yards opened 16 years ago, the openness within its friendly confines will be the reason.

The park’s design encourages patrons to walk around and experience the game from many vantage points—the concourse, which wraps around the lower deck; the plaza beyond the outfield; the ramps, which offer views of the field and the Washington landscape.

Baseball is a leisurely game that rewards conversation, hot-dog eating, and beer drinking. Nine innings is a long time to remain in a seat. Options abound at the new park for both baseball diehards looking for a new perspective on the game and those looking for distractions.

There are nearly twice as many places to buy food and drink as there were at RFK, most with views of the action while standing in line. There are a restaurant above left center field and a “strike zone” for kids behind the big scoreboard, where youngsters will be able to smack balls inside a batting cage, play video baseball games, or pose for pictures with the “racing presidents” mascots.

The high-definition scoreboard is among the nation’s largest, measuring 47 feet high and 101 feet across. By comparison, the screen at DC’s Uptown Theater is 40 by 70 feet.

Forget the seventh-inning stretch. Imagine a third-inning stroll, a fifth-inning bite, and a late-inning visit to watch the bullpen.

“Everywhere the fans look, there’s something new for them to see,” says Joe Spear, the Kansas City–based architect who has been building ballparks for 28 years and who teamed up with Purnell to design Nationals Park. “We want them to discover new things each time they come out—for years.’’

Washington hasn’t christened a new baseball stadium for nearly half a century. In that span, 35 new major-league parks have been built. Nine cities have built two new stadiums.

Free agency, the designated hitter, and steroids have changed the game in the decades since RFK opened, but ballparks have changed even more. The “cookie cutter” stadiums—the behemoths built in the 1960s, of which RFK is the oldest—are pretty much all gone.

Half Street is planned as a development with condos, restaurants, bars, shops, and a hotel. On game days, the street will be closed to traffic. The first phase of development is to open in 2009. Half Street rendering courtesy of Monument Realty

Camden Yards touched off a design revolution when it opened in 1992, ushering in an era of retro parks that harked back to the time when parks were irregularly shaped to squeeze into their urban spaces. Grandstands were intimate out of necessity. In the case of Griffith Stadium—home to Walter Johnson and Josh Gibson long before RFK was built—the outfield zigged and zagged around several homes whose owners refused to budge.

In some cities, such as Chicago and Boston, the ballpark may be the most recognizable building in town. While that will never be the case in Washington, the new park—officially called Nationals Park until someone buys the naming rights—could draw four times as many visitors this year as the Washington Monument.

Many nonfans are unhappy with the $611 million that DC is contributing to its construction. Owner Ted Lerner is spending at least another $30 million of his own.

Yet the ballpark is the anchor of what city officials hope will be a burst of development south and west of the Capitol. And it has already transformed a district of dilapidated warehouses into a neighborhood bustling with people and construction.

The new park seats almost 5,000 fewer fans than RFK but feels much smaller.

On a brisk afternoon ten weeks before opening day, as the last of the 41,000 blue seats were mounted around the Kentucky-bluegrass field, Spear pointed with pride to some of the details he thinks makes the Nationals’ new home among baseball’s best.

The upper deck doesn’t loom over the lower deck, so all fans will be able to track the highest fly balls. The luxury boxes stop beyond first base, allowing the right-field upper deck to be brought 25 feet closer to the field. The ramp down the third-base line is aligned to provide views of the playing field on one side and the Washington Monument on the other, a feature the architects predict will make the ramp a popular spot.

While getting a hot dog at Camden Yards or RFK requires descending into the stadium’s cavernous hallways and hoping to catch a glimpse of the action on TV, buying food at the new park simply takes you to another vantage point to watch the action.

“Fans are getting just about everything positive I’ve learned in the last 28 years doing these kind of buildings,’’ says Spear, who has worked on ten major-league parks. His firm, HOK Sports, has designed 14.

This project was a collaboration between HOK Sports and Devrouax & Purnell Architects, a local firm that designed the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center.

As pitchers and catchers prepared to report for spring training, the ballpark possessed two qualities that surprised some Washingtonians: It was on time and on budget.

Workers broke ground in May 2006 on the 17-acre site, and construction never stopped. The gates will open Saturday evening, March 29, for an exhibition game against the Baltimore Orioles, an invitation-only affair for construction workers and season-ticket holders. The park’s major-league debut is the following night when the Nationals open their season against the Atlanta Braves.

Perhaps the single best feature of the new park is that there are no bad seats.

The $300 seats behind home plate offer a closeness to the game on par with Chicago’s Wrigley Field and Boston’s Fenway Park. The more affordable $10 seats five decks above offer good views of the field, and some provide spectacular glimpses of the Capitol dome, the Washington Monument, or the river’s bend.

In between are 24 seating categories, 13 price levels, and three levels of suites—a remarkable variety of ways to watch a ballgame.

The idea is to create “neighborhoods” within the stadium, says architect Purnell. He first sketched the park’s unique triangle-and-circle design two years ago, and he believes fans will enjoy seeking out the nooks and concessions that suit their tastes.

Not needing to worry about fitting a rectangular 100-yard football field into the stadium, the designers were able to bring fans much closer to the field. The seats directly behind the Nationals’ dugout ($60) are as close to the diamond as Major League Baseball allows—48 feet—and roughly 16 feet closer than they were at RFK. Everything is closer than at RFK.

In the outfield, there are seats that abut the home and visitors’ bullpens ($25 and $30) for a view of relief pitchers warming up.

Every seat is angled toward the infield. Those that faced elsewhere were removed.

Seats in the two farthest sections down the left-field line are priced at $5, with tickets sold only on game days. Those seats have a clear view of the field and are far superior to the upper-deck outfield seats at RFK. These may well be the best “worst seats” in baseball.

The playing field is purposely asymmetrical.

Baseball is the only major sport where the playing surface itself is unique. In football, hockey, and soccer, the dimensions of each field are identical by rule. Basketball courts vary in size, but their proportions remain the same. In baseball, irregular fields define the game. A long line drive that might clear the fence in Camden Yards could bounce off the Green Monster in Boston for a long single.

“Baseball fans love controversy,” Spear says. And they will get it.

The distance from home plate to the left-field foul pole is only one foot different from the distance to the right-field pole. But between the poles, the outfield wall bends to form eight distinct façades. Sometime this season, a ball will carom off one of the outfield’s funny angles and fans will debate how the fielder should have played it or what would have happened if it had been hit at another park. The misshape is not as dramatic as Tal’s Hill in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, a 30-degree slope in deepest center field with a flagpole in the middle, or the 37-foot green wall in Boston’s Fenway Park. But it contains enough idiosyncrasies to allow Nationals outfielders—and their fans—to feel some sense of home-park ownership.

Whether Nationals Park favors hitters or pitchers will depend on wind patterns and other factors yet to be determined. This is not a bandbox with tiny dimensions to help sluggers. Yet the smaller foul territory means that many balls that would have been caught for outs in RFK will fly into the stands.

“You never know until you open up a park,” says Nationals president Stan Kasten. “It’s a greater question mark than in most parks because all of this will change as buildings go up on Half Street.”

How the wind ultimately blows off the Anacostia and bounces off the new buildings near M Street will play a big role in determining the park’s offensive output.

The fences are a little closer than at RFK. At 336 feet to the left-field foul pole and 335 feet to right, the dimensions down the line are almost identical. Dead center is 403 feet, which is seven feet shorter than RFK, and the power alley in right field is ten feet closer in.

And unlike the uniform fence at RFK, which curved symmetrically around the outfield, the new park has walls that vary in height from 8 to 12 feet. Chasing a long fly ball, a sprinting fielder may attempt to leap up an eight-foot wall to prevent the ball from going over. At 12 feet, the fielder may choose to back away to play the rebound.

Short walls along the first- and third-base lines virtually guarantee that some eager fielder will go into the stands in chase of a foul ball.

When San Francisco opened Pac Bell Park in 2000, its short right-field fence (309 feet) and position beside the bay were perfectly suited for Giants slugger Barry Bonds to hit balls into McCovey Cove. There’s no such obvious wrinkle in Washington.

Architects visited the San Francisco park and took note of Bonds lounging on a La-Z-Boy in the corner of the rectangular clubhouse with a TV on and his “do not disturb’’ aura keeping intruders and even teammates at bay. The scene convinced them to do something different here.

The locker rooms in the new park are an oval shape with no corners to hide in. Plush carpeting, oversize mahogany lockers (with locked compartments for cell phones and wallets), and flat-screen TVs give the appearance of an upscale gym. The complex includes massage and training tables, weight machines, a pair of big hot tubs, and a rehabilitation pool with a treadmill at the bottom to loosen cramped muscles.

There may be no bad seats in the park, but some are better than others. For those who can afford them, there are 500 seats that are among the best in baseball. The cushioned seats are close enough to hear batters exchange pleasantries with the home-plate umpire.

Life is good for those seated in the Presidential Seats, the first ten rows behind the plate, which start just 12 feet above the catcher. Patrons are welcome to a free buffet spread out on white tablecloths in a dining area under the lower deck. The Oval Office cash bar offers premium drinks. The walkways are tiled with imported stone. At one edge of the private bar, a wall-size window looks down on a batting cage where players warm up before games or before at-bats. Another window provides a panoramic view of manager Manny Acta’s press-conference room so patrons can listen to the manager talk to reporters after games. Patrons get programs and notes for every game. And they get a parking space in one of the lots next to the stadium.

The view of the new stadium from center field.

The seats are available only for season-ticket holders. At $300 a seat, that’s $1,200 a game for a family of four, or $97,200 a season. The Nationals require a three-year commitment, with price increases each year, meaning it would cost a family of four $309,445. The seats in the very front row are even more—$400 each per game. Don’t expect a big family crowd in those seats.

There are also 1,300 Diamond Seats, which offer the next-best views behind the plate. These fans can’t drink at the Oval Office bar or watch Manny Acta after the game, but they have access to two other clubs and receive up to $35 worth of food per game, which they can order from their seats, which cost $150.

These premium seats take up the first deck behind home plate. On the second deck are $55 club seats directly behind the plate and in the top deck $20 “infield gallery” seats. With no cross aisles, fans who don’t have tickets to one of these sections will never cross behind home plate.

Asked how families on limited incomes can afford to buy tickets behind the plate, Kasten bristles before explaining the economics of modern ballparks: The expensive seats behind the plate subsidize the less expensive seats everywhere else.

One of the reasons executives of Major League Baseball insisted that Washington build a new stadium before it committed to moving the team here from Montreal was to give the club the chance to take in lots of revenue—a critical component in a sport in which the average player’s salary approaches $3 million a year.

In addition to the $300 and $150 seats in the lower deck, three levels of suites (Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson) offer fine views and amenities such as wireless Internet access and a private bathroom.

Nationals Park offers its best views of Washington from the cheap seats.

Though farther from the baseball action, the $10 and $20 seats in the upper decks boast good sightlines to the field, and many include views of the Capitol, the Washington Monument, and the Anacostia River.

Fans in the highest rows along the first-base side can track planes disappearing behind the Washington Monument and following the Potomac as they head toward Reagan National Airport. Until new buildings are erected, they can see the top of the Old Post Office and even a glimpse of Washington National Cathedral. Those in the very top rows get a surprisingly picturesque view of the Anacostia bending past the Washington Navy Yard.

The ballpark’s builders knew there would be complaints that so few patrons can see the Capitol, especially those occupying the most expensive seats in the lower deck. But they faced a Catch-22: They wanted a stadium with a view in order to encourage development. However, the development would eventually block the view. Developers would have to forgo hundreds of millions—perhaps billions—of dollars’ worth of development to keep the view open.

So the Capitol views are fleeting, darting out between buildings that are going up and the Clark Construction cranes that signal the neighborhood’s growth. Some fans in section 223 ($25) in the second deck beyond first base have a marvelous view of the Capitol, framed by a parking garage on the right and a new ten-story office building on the left. But as you move just 15 seats toward the foul pole, the Capitol becomes obstructed and all you can see is the Statue of Freedom perched above the dome. For now, the best Capitol views are from the upper deck down the first-base line.

The difficulty of designing for a Capitol view prompted some to suggest that the stadium be reoriented to the south facing the Anacostia River. The idea was rejected for several reasons.

First, the river is too far away for anyone to reach it with his bat. At more than 600 feet, even Mickey Mantle—who was said to have hit a ball 565 feet at old Griffith Stadium—couldn’t have plopped one into the Anacostia. There are also plans to build on the land between the park and the river, placing a big building between the park and the water.

And finally, while the river can be picturesque by day, it’s dark at night. “People would have looked out at night games and seen nothing,” says architect Marshall Purnell.

By orienting the stadium north, the same direction from which an estimated 70 percent of patrons will arrive, fans will look into the brightly lit open bowl as they approach.

Developers hope that fans will show up early and linger at restaurants and bars slated to open around Half Street.

For now, people may linger whether they want to or not. Without the big parking lots and quick freeway access that surrounded RFK, the only question is how bad traffic will get. The concrete parking garages built beyond the outfield have room for 925 cars. The Nationals expect crowds of more than 41,000 for much of the season. The team has offered neighborhood parking (ranging from $15 to $35) to season-ticket holders.

But even the most optimistic team officials have one word of advice for fans: Metro. The Navy Yard stop on the Green Line is only a few blocks from the park, and Metro is adding a new exit to accommodate fans.

The ballpark, like the team that will play inside it, still awaits an identity.

Asked what he thinks the park will be known for, team president Kasten offers the most optimistic answer of all: “Championship baseball.’’

Want to read more about the changes and developments the new stadium will bring to the neighborhood area? Click here.