Thursday, June 25, 2009

Baseball for the 21st Century

Back in the nightmarish '80s, when the Redskins always beat the Cowboys at the dreadful RFK stadium, somebody would always hang a big banner along the lower stadium wall, close to the field and well within the range of CBS's cameras. On it was one simple phrase: Baseball in DC.

Of course, there was no Major League Baseball in DC in those days, although the Orioles did play--as they still do, of course--in nearby Baltimore. Baseball had been in DC before--a couple of times, actually, with teams called the Senators--but it had always gone elsewhere, leaving some Redskins fan with great seats at RFK wanting. In fact, the 1960s iteration of the Washington Senators became...the Texas Rangers, of course, and have gone mostly nowhere in almost four decades since moving to the Southwest.

When baseball returned to DC in 2005 with the Nationals, it was at the expense of Montreal, a hockey city that never really, truly embraced the Expos, despite the team having fantastic hats in the '70s and some very good players during its run in Quebec. But anybody who still mourns the loss of the 'Spos--and I kind of did until now, honestly--should go to a game in DC.

Right here, a caveat: The Nats game sold out tonight. In fact, tonight's crowd was the largest in the history of Nationals Park...which opened in 2008. The reason, of course, for the throng was that the Red Sox were in town, and Red Sox Nation, irritating marketing concept that it is, is not an inaccurate description of the New England franchise's fan base. There's no doubt that the crowd tonight was comprised of 75 percent Red Sox fans...minimum. So, I'm not saying that the Nats have the best fan base in the country. I don't know what kind of fan base they have. It was hard to find any of their fans tonight--although they were the only ones who left happy.

Fan-base issues aside, if you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: Washington puts on a tremendous baseball experience. Nationals Park isn't a palace. It's better--it's an amusement park, a (fun, and not annoying) mall, a series of pretty good restaurants, a video arcade and...oh yeah, a ballpark.

In the interest of keeping this post to fewer than 5000 words, I'll limit my gushing about Nationals Park. But let's just say this--the Red Sox lost 9-3 to the worst team in baseball and were never in the game tonight, and I still had a great time. I might even go so far as to say a GREAT time, with the rare all-caps affectation. The pre-game at Nationals Park is tremendous, with music--both the real kind and the less palatable DJ kind--filling the facility, and (this is going to sound like a commercial) tons of activities for the whole family.

Oh, you can watch batting practice and pre-game warm-ups, and during that time you can walk almost wherever you want. That's common to a lot of ballparks. But at Nationals Park, there's also a huge barbecue restaurant with live blues music, a DJ spinning annoying tracks for the hipsters, a full (and fully equipped) Playstation video arcade, a McDonald's Playland-style (without the rust and sharp edges) area for the kids, a Build-a-Bear Workshop for the little kids, pretty darn good video entertainment on the massive outfield Jumbotron as well as on the (what seems like) hundreds of hi-def TVs all over the park...and enough bars and food areas (both restaurants and stands) to keep 35-year-old guys like me occupied for hours. Oh, and there's a nice view of the Washington Monument and the DC skyline from the upper-deck seats, as well as a few decent looks at the Anacostia River from various parts of the facility.

I'm really just scratching the surface here. Nationals Park has a party atmosphere going hours before the game--the game itself, in fact, is almost a let-down...especially for Nats fans, I suppose, given that their team is currently just about the worst in baseball. (The old joke about the Senators of the mid-20th century was that Washington was first in war, first in peace...and last in the American League. Given that the Nats play in the National League, a real trouble maker could make the argument that none of the three components of that joke is true anymore...but I digress, and I disagree, for what it's worth.)

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. You baseball purists decry the party atmosphere at what should be some sort of shrine to your sacred game. Or maybe you say that the Nats wouldn't need all the flash in other parts of the park if they were better on the field. Fair enough. But you know what? I don't care. I left Nationals Park in a good mood despite the fact that my favorite AL team (I'm still a Mets guy in the NL) and my now-hometown team had just been shellacked. I actually left happy.

And isn't there something to be said for that? Losing wasn't fun, but the experience was. And that's OK with me. Say what you will, but baseball games can be expensive these days (don't get me started on how I got my ticket to this one or how much I paid...), and folks should be able to at least relax and have a good time regardless of the score. Yes, I'm a wimp about this, and I'm not ashamed to be one.

Think about it--if you're one of those guys whose wife or girlfriend doesn't like sports (and, yes, I know that many women do like sports...OK?), you and your buddy can still take your wife and his wife to the game, and they can sit in the sunshine, drink cocktails, eat a decent meal and generally do what non-sports women enjoy doing while you take in a baseball game. No cramped seats, no ends of rows only accessible by climbing over 500 other people, no bathrooms would make a rat cringe they're so dirty...and, for you parents, no watching the kids squirm in their seats and generally pay no attention to the game.

Nationals Park is baseball for the 21st century. In fact, it's sports for the 21st century--entertaining, all-encompassing, clever, family-oriented but not, really. And, no, it's not Fenway Park. I love Fenway; it has charm, history and real fans who care about the game. There's a euphoria to leaving Fenway after a win that I can't imagine Nationals Park having, but there's also a cramp in the side and a stench that I know Nationals Park doesn't have. Hey, I don't want to rag on Fenway--I really do cherish it. But it's old school to say the least. And if you go and see the Sox lose, it's kind of a lame experience all around. Not so Nationals Park. That's all I'm saying.

Cities take great pride in their sports teams even though the overwhelming majority of players on those teams don't come from the cities they represent. If a city really wants to be proud of something in sports, it should be proud of its facilities--they say more about the city itself than any team could. New England has some fine places to watch games--Gillette Stadium is marvelous, and the TD Banknorth Garden is still very fresh and modern. But Fenway is, in many ways, a microcosm of Boston--charming, historic, capable of producing immense pleasure...but also crowded, expensive, a little bit nasty in parts and generally a big pain in the you-know-what.

I'm not a big ballpark tourist (or even that big of a baseball fan, really)--among Major League parks, I've been to both Texas Rangers parks (the lovely but stale Ballpark, or whatever it's called now, and the dearly missed Arlington Stadium), as well as to Jacobs Field in Cleveland, the old Shea Stadium in Queens and Minute Maid Park in Houston (although not for a game at Minute Maid). I might have been to a couple others that I'm forgetting... Regardless, I'm not saying that Nationals Park is unique, although it would be hard for me to believe that there are many other parks like it. I'm just saying that if Nationals Park is the future of sports entertainment--and it is--give me the future. It's just more fun than the past.

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