- First visit: Sunday June 8th 2008
- Most recent visit: Sunday May 20 2018
After moving from Montreal following the 2004 season, the newly minted Washington Nationals (known locally as the Nats) played their first three seasons in RFK Stadium. During that time, its replacement, Nationals Park (known locally as Nats Park), was constructed on the southeast Anacostia River waterfront, not far from the Navy Yard section of Washington DC. An ambitious construction schedule projected completion in time for the start of the 2008 baseball season, a mere 23 months after groundbreaking in May of 2006. Fortunately, weather and other circumstances were kind to the project, and Nats Park opened as scheduled in late March 2008.
Our first visit to Nats Park occurred on Sunday June 8th as the hometown Nats hosted the San Francisco Giants at 115 pm. From central NJ, the drive took about three hours, and we didn’t have much difficulty finding the stadium, after driving around DC first. Sunday morning traffic was light, so the detour did not cause any problems arriving at the park with time to spare before the first pitch. Not knowing much about the park (as it was still fairly new), we were not presented with a multitude of parking options. Finally, we parked on the site of an old foundry down the street from the stadium. During our drive through that section of DC, it was evident that just a couple of blocks north of the park, the neighborhood changed fairly drastically. This was something we would verify on subsequent trips to Nats Park.
As is our custom, we walked around the perimeter of the stadium prior to entering the ballpark. Nats Park was built on the banks of the Anacostia River, which lies beyond the first base side of the ballpark. A walking trail along the river provided excellent views of the river and the boat traffic. Due to time constraints, we did not spend much time on the banks of the Anacostia, but with what little we did see, I made a mental note to visit this spot the next time we were there.
As we rounded the right field section of the park, we saw the DC Metro station serving Nats Park. It was a short walk from the stadium, and seemingly most of the fans were arriving via the train. To this point, most of the parks we had visited did NOT have easy access to subway or rail lines (outside of the New York City, of course). Having easy access to mass transit seems to be the key to a better fan experience, and we were pleased to see that DC planned well. Once we completed our tour of the outside of the park, we entered through the home plate entrance. Being in DC, we expected security to be thorough, but it was my opinion that the security at Nats Park was aggressive, rude and surly. Because of that, getting through the security checkpoints has always been the biggest downside of seeing games there.
Strolling along the lower concourse of Nats Park, we stadium was vaguely reminiscent of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, which opened four years earlier. Each stadium as three (or four, in left field of Nats Park) tiers of seats, as well as bleacher seats near centerfield. Both parks are open in the outfield, though the view of centerfield here is MUCH nicer than Citizens Bank Park. Rather than a large videoboard in left field (as is the case in Philadelphia), the large videoboard here is in right field, though it is smaller in DC. Both ballparks have an out of town scoreboard/auxiliary videoboard running the length of the right field wall. Though it was still very early in the visit, I thought that while the views from Nats Park were FAR better than those of the Phillies home, Citizens Bank Park had an edge with respect to the interior of the park.
One of the earliest comments we had heard about Nats Park was the height of the press level. Listening to Mets broadcasters describe the TV broadcast booth as the highest they had ever seen, I was curious to see what was so different about this park. As we walked out into centerfield, we found that the press levels is indeed at the top of the stadium behind home plate. We did not appreciate the height until we climbed up to near that level to get pictures for a panorama. While not as high as some of the seats of the multipurpose monsters of the 1960s and 1970s, it was surprising that the press level was that far away from the action.
Though the seating capacity of Nats Park is listed at 41,000+, the three tiers of seats (as well as the bleachers in the outfield) made the park seem somehow bigger. In my opinion, the size of the ballpark detracted from the intimacy of the stadium, which has become a hallmark of the “newer” MLB parks built during the 2000s/2010s. Like most of the newer parks, Nats Park featured a large array of restaurants and bars, as well as a very nice lounge area in the 200 section behind home plate. Since my tastes at the ballpark are more traditional, I did not indulge in any of the specialty eateries, relying on the more standard fare available from the concession stands.
Once we found our seats in the upper deck behind home plate (one of our favored seating locations), we discovered we could see the dome of the Capitol (an unexpected treat). Though the weather was sunny with light winds for our game, it is not hard to imagine that strong or gusty winds in the upper deck could detract from the experience, especially near the top of the stadium in cold weather. Nats Park offers great sight lines from just about all seats, and fans are much closer to the action than the old multipurpose stadiums. While not quite as intimate as Camden Yards just up Interstate 95, Nats Park provides a great place to see a game nestled within the DC city limits.
More impressed with the ballpark than I expected, the game that occurred that afternoon was almost an afterthought. Behind a strong outing by the Giants’ left hander Barry Zito, San Francisco bested the hometown Nats 6-3. Perhaps my best memory of the game was the President’s Race. Its origins reach back to RFK Stadium in 2006, as people dressed in president’s costumes engage in a foot race around the warning track, starting at a gate in centerfield and ending just before the 1st base dugout. In total, seven presidents have run in the race, which occurs in the fourth inning of each home game. There have been some bizarre endings to the race, but none more interesting than when the Easter Bunny leapt out of the crowd, disrupting the race and allowing William Taft to win.
Having a long drive home after the game, we did not take much time to further examine the ballpark. However, on the way out along the upper level concourse, we did catch glimpses of two of DC’s famous landmarks. Both the US Capitol and the Washington Memorial were clearly visible, and despite traveling across the United States a fair amount, this was my first actual look at both (though from a distance).
Living far enough away from DC to make the trip an all day affair, we did not visit Nats Park again until 2013, when I moved to Maryland, just a few miles away from the park. Living less than a mile from the Green Line of the Washington Metro, I quickly discovered that taking the train to the ballpark was cheaper (as parking near the park could cost in excess of $40) and easier than driving. In a surprise to me, the Washington Metro service stops running at 1130 PM. That relatively early shutdown time meant that if Nats games went into extra innings, you had to consider when you would leave the game. A miscalculation could easily result in a taxi or Uber fare of $60 or more.
Since the train ride to Nats Park was only about 20 minutes, it became my preferred location to see our favorite team, the New York Mets. Most of the games we have seen at the ballpark have been against the Mets, and as my brother reminded me, we saw plenty of games with the Mets on the losing end. Unfortunately for us, the Nats were better the Mets most years. In fact, we had the misfortune to see Bryce Harper hit a walk off home run in the 13th inning on a Thursday afternoon in August of 2014. Perhaps the most memorable game (for very bad reasons) we have seen at Nats park was April 30th, 2017.
The Nats lineup scored five runs off Mets starter Noah Syndergaard in the first inning, and his fastball was uncharacteristically flat. After facing one batter in the second inning, Syndergaard exited the game. It was clear from the expression of concern by Syndergaard and the Mets coaching staff that the injury was serious, and he ended up missing much of the remainder of the season with a torn lat muscle.
After the departure of the Mets starter, the Nats packed lineup feasted on the New York bullpen. Things got so bad for the Mets that they sent backup catcher Kevin Plawecki to the mound in the eight inning. Though he did give up a few runs, his pitching performance that afternoon was not much worse than the rest of the New York pitching staff. The Mets went down quietly in the top of the ninth, mercifully ending a 23-5 romp. In the game, the Nats Anthony Rendon went 5 for 5 with three home runs and 10 RBI. Though the defeat smarted, the loss of the fireballing Syndergaard was something from which the Mets could not recover.
Nationals Park has grown on me over the years. Once I moved to Maryland, and the park was a mere short train ride away, we visited at least a couple of time a year. However, my love for the minor leagues cut down on the number of trips to Nats Park through the 2010s, as the minor league experience is much more intimate than the MLB experience. If you plan to see a game at Nats Park, I would recommend taking mass transit, since parking is expensive, and the getaway after the game could take a considerable amount of time, especially following an afternoon game during the week.