August 14, 2008: The District of Columbia
Since MLB relocated and rebranded the Expos from Montreal in 2005, the Nationals have carved out a niche in the nation’s capital. The Nationals played their first three seasons in the District at RFK Stadium, drawing 2.7 million fans in 2005, but the former home of the Washington Redskins and Senators lacked modern amenities and facilities. (The ticket offices, for example, were trailers outside RFK’s gates.) When MLB sold the Nationals to the D.C. real estate developer Ted Lerner in 2006, plans to build the team a new home were already in the works. President George H.W. Bush threw out the first pitch in Nationals Park history to open the 2008 MLB season. The game, played on a Sunday night in March, was a memorable and chilly one, as fans of MLB.tv can attest, ending on Ryan Zimmerman’s 9th-inning home run to defeat the Braves. Opening night at Nationals Park may have been the highlight of the season, as the Nats finished the year with baseball’s worst record (59-102), drawing 2.3 million fans to their new home in D.C.’s Navy Yard. What might have been a nightmare to some organizations was the turning point for the Nationals. Their #1 draft pick in 2009 and subsequently in 2010 enabled the organization to select two franchise-altering players, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.Prior to the Nationals making D.C. their home, many baseball fans in the area rooted for the Baltimore Orioles, located 40 miles north of the District. Orioles’ ownership fought the relocation of the Expos, citing a reduction in team revenue. This resulted in a favorable media rights deal for the Orioles that the Nationals continue to fight to this day. A Beltway rivalry was born. Nationals Park was built with steel, glass and concrete, a stark contrast to the retro-brick design ballparks like Camden Yards in Baltimore that ushered in the ballpark revolution. The inspiration for the design was the East Wing of the National Art Gallery. Its location in the Navy Yard neighborhood made it difficult to have the backdrop of D.C.’s memorials and monuments, but if you sit on the first base side of the Gallery (Upper Deck level), you can see the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument. Nationals Park does a great job tying in Washington, D.C. baseball history and culture throughout the ballpark. The walkway to the home plate gate serves as a timeline of important dates going back to 1901, when the previous iteration of the Washington Nationals played their first game. For fans entering through the center field gate there are statues of Walter Johnson, Josh Gibson and Frank Howard, as well as D.C.’s signature cherry blossoms. The Nationals have a unique ring of honor featuring former Washington Senators, Homestead Grays and Montreal Expos. I bet Ryan Zimmerman, a Nat since being drafted out of Virginia in 2005, will be the first National inducted. Additional “only in D.C.” features of Nationals Park include a submarine dive horn that is blared after Nationals home runs and victories (paying homage to the Navy Yard neighborhood in which the team resides) and the Presidents Race during the 4th inning.
As a Mets fan, the Washington Nationals and their fans are rivals. I am not sure under what circumstance I would ever root for the Nationals to win a game. During my travels, I usually pull for the home team, but with the Mets making three trips to D.C. every season I can’t say when my first pro-Nats game will be. During the 2008 season, I made my way down to catch the Mets. Oliver Perez took the mound for the Mets against Colin Balester. The Nationals lineup was littered with former prospects and veterans hoping to extend their careers. The game went as expected with seven of the Mets position players recording at least one hit, the biggest being home runs by Brian Schneider and Carlos Delgado. The Nationals were in the middle of a 12-game losing streak, but did muster three runs to cut the Mets’ lead to 5-3 heading into the 9th; however, a four-run Mets rally put the game out of reach. Many of the 31,058 fans in attendance were rooting for the Mets. I see this trend continuing as fans make the four-hour trip south to check out Nationals Park and enjoy the Mets’ newest rivalry.
My dislike for the Nationals, their fans, and especially their MASN announcing team notwithstanding, a night or day out at Nationals Park is a great time. Washington, D.C. is a diverse city with fans of all ages from all over the country. This creates a buzz in the ballpark that I noticed during my second visit to Nationals Park in 2014. The area around the ballpark has become more developed with condos and bars/restaurants sprouting up. This brings out a younger crowd, first-generation Nats fans who, as they get older, can tell their kids stories of Harper, Scherzer and Zimmerman losing in the 2012, 2014 and 2016 playoffs (sorry…I had to). If you’re heading out to Nationals Park, take the D.C. Metro where the Navy Yard-Ballpark stop will drop you off a short walk from the center field gate, which opens two-and-a-half hours before first pitch. Once passing through the gates, head over to the Red Porch for a beer and Ben’s Chili Bowl for a half smoke. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the National Pastime in the nation’s capital.