WASHINGTON — Baseball is about tradition. Tradition takes time to develop. 2016 will be only the Nationals’ twelfth season in Washington, D.C. and much like the area that surrounds their stadium, the Nationals tradition is still a work in progress.
One of the biggest knocks you hear as a Nationals fan in this area — surrounded by Orioles fans and transplants from St. Louis, Chicago, Boston and New York — is that our stadium doesn’t feel like a baseball stadium. There isn’t an architect in this country that can design a stadium that feels like baseball. That feeling only comes when the place has logged enough history, and been doused in the right amount of tears, chocolate syrup, mustard stains and beer — that is when a stadium begins to feel like home.
With each passing season, the experience at Nats Park feels more genuine. You see familiar faces, you return to your favorite spots around the stadium, you reminisce about where you were sitting for the good times (Werth walk-off) and the bad (18 innings). In another decade, the kids who attended the Nationals’ first Opening Day in 2005 will be bringing their own kids to the ballpark, an entire generation who won’t know what it’s like to not have a baseball team in town. Nats Park might not feel like home to you just yet, but it will by then.
In the meantime, I challenge anyone who says that, “Nationals Park doesn’t feel like a real baseball stadium” to take in a game near the left-field foul pole with a man I know only as Bam Bam (it’s written on the back of his jersey). Mr. Bam Bam is a fixture at Nats games and he was the first fan I ran into on my way into the stadium last Friday — his excitement was palpable. I later asked him for a quote about the stadium for this article and he said, “Nats Park is my home away from home, where all of my troubles go away for a few hours.” Damn right, Bam Bam. That’s what sports are all about for us fans — a chance to escape the grind of daily life and to come together in celebration, or agony, for a few hours.
If you’re planning on making Nats Park home this season, check out Chris Lingebach’s excellent summary of this year’s stadium upgrades. Last Friday, I checked out some of the new stadium offerings and ran my body through a crash course so that you don’t have to repeat my mistakes.
Here’s a rundown of my experience and some suggestions for your trips to the park this season:
Food — First, a suggestion: Each season, the food and drink options around the ballpark expand — take advantage of this. Bluejacket Brewery, The Big Stick and Justin’s Café all have better quality food and drink than any concession stand in the ballpark. Nothing against ballpark staff — it’s much easier to feed a few hundred people than tens of thousands — and compared to stadium prices, every business in the area seems affordable.
The biggest food controversy of the season revolves around the disappearance of Hard Times, which isn’t much of a surprise since they recently closed their Verizon Center location, but it is a bit unsettling because the restaurant was a mainstay near the outfield concourse since the stadium opened in 2008. If we can get over Ian Desmond’s departure, we can get over the loss of Terlingua chili nachos.
A place called Haute Dogs and Fries replaced Hard Times and will be playing the role of Trea Turner: attempting to help us forget. I tried the Bahn Mi hot dog which is a Frankenstein-like combination of a delicious Vietnamese sandwich, a split-top bun and a beef frank. I did not vomit, which is more than I can say for the first time I ate Ben’s Chili Bowl at the ballpark.
As surprisingly delicious as that amalgamation of flavors was, it certainly won’t do anything to change our fan base’s reputation as a wine and cheese crowd. Neither will the extended vegetarian offerings at the stadium. I say, damn the haters. Vegetables can be delicious. Stadiums vegetables though, still have a ways to go.
I skipped the options above and opted for a roasted cauliflower sub from G by Mike Isabella (I was trying to find an item tempting enough to lure my vegan girlfriend to the park). On my second bite of the sub I had a realization — ballpark vegetarian will never be a thing.
Making healthy food taste good requires effort; unhealthy food tastes good with ease. There is a reason why hot dogs have been a thing at baseball games for like 200 years — nobody has time for effort during a ballgame and a hot dog is the most effortless of all foods, in both preparation and consumption. I don’t think people even like hot dogs anymore — they just want something they can devour with one hand, in less than 30 seconds, whilst holding a beer in the other hand, and filling out the box score with their feet.
Drink – Switching gears, let’s talk about the drinking situation at Nats games. If you’re a one beer/no beer at the game person, please feel free to skip this section.
Anheuser-Busch is now the team’s official beer partner and it has celebrated by slapping the Budweiser name on everything in the stadium except the toilet paper.
You can still buy craft* beers: Goose Island, Shock Top, Stella and Blue Point (*all brands now owned by Anheuser-Busch), at most locations throughout the park. The only true craft beers remaining in the park can be found at the five District Drafts locations which will sell beers from local breweries: Port City, Atlas, Mad Fox, 3 Stars, D.C. Brau and Old Ox.
Additionally, the stadium “Happy Hour” that used to run until the game began will now conclude 35 minutes before the scheduled first pitch.
Do you see how those clever stadium folks covered themselves for a rain delay with that verbiage? They know that we are a bunch of wild animals that would drink the ocean if it were filled with discounted beer.
My suggestion for drinking is the same as it was for food: Go outside the stadium before and after the game. At a minimum, The Bullpen Fairgrounds is a serviceable option close enough that you can still make it in before the Star-Spangled Banner. You’ll miss that place if it gets redeveloped in the next season or two. Side note: To the dozen or so of you who still scream, “Oh!” during the National Anthem, stop — that’s a Baltimore thing.
On my way out of the stadium, I ran into a couple of happy folks, clad in Nats gear, smoking cigars next to their Harley. A momentary chill in the air made it feel a bit like an October evening. Who better to ask for a season outlook than people who look like they just won the World Series — I could use the optimism.
“How are we going to do this year, how many wins?” I asked. After last season’s disappointment, I prepared myself for tempered expectations. “97 wins,” the gentleman said without hesitation, taking a puff of his cigar. “Playoffs, for sure — we always go to the playoffs in even years,” his partner added.
Hope springs eternal.
Happy Opening Day, Nats fans. I’ll see you at the ballpark.
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