Nationals Park Turns 15: What Works and What Should Change in a New Stadium
Thursday's Opening Day game against the Atlanta Braves marked the start of Washington's fifteenth season at Nationals Park. Since the average lifespan of an MLB ballpark is about thirty years, that means Navy Yard's biggest attraction is around halfway through its lifespan. At this midlife milestone for DC's monument to baseball, let's imagine what we'd keep and what new features we'd want out of a hypothetical replacement stadium fifteen years from now.
Keep: Half Street
When I exited the Navy Yard Metro station on Opening Day, a wide grin came to my face as I walked down Half Street towards Nationals Park for the first time since September. That walk is one of the coolest things about the ballpark, the open concourse behind left field provides a great view of the stadium to fans as they walk past Half Street's enticing variety of bars and restaurants. When the Nationals pack up and move on to a new DC venue, the new stadium should definitely attempt to recapture the joy Half Street brings to fans before a ballgame.
Change: The View
One sore point for Nationals Park is how little of DC's beautiful cityscape can be seen from the stands. Fans seated in the grandstand section on the stadium's first base side can see the tops of the U.S. Capital Building and the Washington Monument, but aside from those the only buildings in view are the apartment complexes that neighbor the Park. While some of the stadium's walkways and balconies offer nice views of the Anacostia River and nearby Audi Field, neither can be seen from the seats.
I recognize that it's probably difficult, if not flat out paradoxical, for a stadium to have a great view from the inside out as well as from the outside in, but I'm imagining that this rebuild will yield so much on-field success for the Nationals that they'll earn themselves a true baseball cathedral when it's time to retire Nationals Park. Perhaps our hypothetical future stadium could have a "Half Street" that points from the park towards of the Capital, so that fans could have a better view of the dome during a game.
Like many fans, I envy ballparks that incorporate water features into their design and I think Nationals Park missed an opportunity to face the Anacostia River. Oracle Park in San Francisco is famous for home runs that are launched over Levi's Landing into McCovey Cove, and Pittsburgh's PNC Park provides a beautiful view of the Allegheny River and the bridges that span it. While Anacostia's Fredrick Douglas Memorial Bridge isn't quite as iconic as the Roberto Clemente Bridge, if our Nationals Park of the future is located in Navy Yard, I think the river would make an excellent backdrop.
Keep: The Batter's Eye
Nationals Park has one of the best batter's eyes in baseball. Its three-dimensional shape and the leafy green Curly W adornment just makes the most out of what tends to be a function-only feature at many ballparks. I'd like some version of this in a future stadium.
Change: The Concrete
Perhaps Nationals Park's biggest flaw is its use of concrete as the main building material. The Nationals website states that the "exterior facade of the 41,546 seat venue features an innovative design of steel, glass and pre-cast concrete to create a facility that uniquely reflects the architecture of Washington, DC." I've always felt that the heavy reliance on a material as bland as pre-cast concrete is what makes Nationals Park inferior to stadiums like Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The concrete look fails capture the monumental feel of DC's famous white marble landmarks, creating a ballpark with a fun vibe without a sense of grandeur (RFK Stadium in its prime, by contrast, had a look that fit a bit more with the Mall). If the the idea is to have a ballpark that mimics its historic surroundings, the mindset should be to go big or go home.
Imagine a ballpark with an exterior that evokes the monuments on the National Mall, a white marble (or marble-imitating) facade with features like columns that match monuments like the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Such a majestic look certainly would not come cheap, but let's dream big. The nation's pastime in the nation's capital deserves the very best.
Keep: The Food
Nationals Park has an exciting variety of food options that make the ballpark distinctly DC. Spots like Ben's Chilli Bowl provides specialty concessions that can't be found in any other stadium and traditional ballpark food like hot dogs and nachos meet baseball's unique standards. The most recent addition to Nationals Park are neat self-checkout concessions where fans can grab their items themselves and pay at a kiosk, enabling fans to return to the action as quickly as possible (a benefit that is especially necessary since the addition of the pitch clock). The food scene at Nationals Park is ever-evolving, and fans have always been able to count on good food for every gameti
Change: The Prices
Nationals Park ranks among the highest in cost for items like beer and hot dogs, a flaw that is not directly tied to the infrastructure of the ballpark, but is still one that hinders the experience at our stadium. I didn't purchase a single concessions item when I visited the ballpark on Friday, opting instead to buy a hot dog at The Bullpen on Half Street before the game. It cost about half as much as it would have inside the stadium, which made the dog taste an awful lot better. In Washington's ballpark of the future, more reasonably priced concessions should be a top priority to make the game accessible to every fan in the DMV.
Keep or Change: The Name
I've always appreciated that Nationals Park lacks a corporate moniker, but I think a more creative title could be in order for a future Washington Ballpark. For example, the park could incorporate its immediate surroundings by including its host neighborhood in its name. If it stays in Navy Yard, a name like Navy Yard Stadium or Nationals Park at Navy Yard would be a lot of fun. On the other hand, the costs for a lot of the other items on this wish list may run high, so perhaps a sponsorship would be necessary. In that case I only hope that the club picks an enterprise fans can tie into the Nationals identity, a food or beverage a la Wrigley Field or Busch Stadium rather than a bank or insurance company (who gets excited to see a game at a LoanDepot or Guaranteed Rate?).
Fifteen years is quite a while, and Nationals Park has certainly stood the test of time so far. That said, Nationals baseball in 2023 is all about the future and it's fun to imagine what the Nats' home might look like in 2038. If the Nationals want their future home to be a decent upgrade from the one they have now, they'll first have to bring championship-caliber baseball back to South Capital Street.