When you demand and get taxpayer money to build a $611 million baseball stadium, it's probably not the best idea to boast that an additional $30 million was generously donated by the team's owners to "jazz up the park." Especially if you know full well -- as Washington Nationals president Stan Kasten must have known when making the boast -- that the new Nationals Park, opened for business this April, is about as jazzy as a kazoo.
Baseball stadiums may not be the kind of thing you can just plaster over with a Bea Arthur poster, but the gall with which Washington has celebrated the unveiling of one of the blandest, most poorly designed major league stadiums in the country is still difficult to fathom.
Nationals Park really has to be seen to be pitied. The Washington Monument, potentially visible to half the crowd, is concealed from all but a tiny nosebleed section by a staircase perfectly placed in the adjacent parking structure. Any sights available from the other side are blanked by a giant generic scoreboard, and I'm sure no other stadium contains a large section of $30 seats whose view of the right-field corner is entirely obstructed. The food is limited and awful.
Most new parks contain a quirky distinguishing feature. Houston's Minute Maid field takes a sudden spike in elevation at deepest center. AT&T Park in San Francisco is backed by the bay. Diamondback Stadium has a swimming pool.
Purists find this stuff gimmicky, but Nationals Park could've benefited greatly from, say, a water hazard behind second base, or barbed wire along the foul lines -- anything to make it more memorable than the cheap movie-studio set of a baseball stadium it presently resembles.
There is a slope behind the right-centerfield wall that might grab your attention for several minutes as you slowly realize that it's covered by a dark-green felt trying to imitate grass almost as successfully as a foosball table. Dark-green felt. $611 million.
I WASN'T AROUND when excuses were being made for the $611 million. That kind of money could've gotten Washington the Oakland A's -- 175 more wins than the Nationals franchise since 1999 and worth only $323 million according to Forbes -- with plenty left over to bring a Wal-Mart to Dupont Circle.
Apparently the excuses had to do with revitalizing the Navy Yard district where Nationals Park resides, but it wasn't long before the focus shifted to revitalizing Nationals Park. A sizeable "Kids Zone" arcade already exists to distract patrons from the pathetic display of baseball on the field. It hasn't been enough to prevent the Nationals from drawing record lows in attendance for a new ballpark's opening months.
Nor does the behavior of those who do attend indicate that baseball's comeback to Washington will, as comebacks go, rate any closer to Jesus II than Michael Jordan III. The bulk of the crowd at the Nats-Brewers game on Memorial Day, which featured two identically fat first-basemen, filed out by the fourth inning.
When the game went into extra innings at the wee hour of four o'clock PM, the place was basically empty. I was there, but that's only because I could enjoy the privilege of rooting against both teams.
Baseball isn't really a game of strategy, much less of personality or drama. It's a game of endurance -- of grinding down the pitcher's arm and then getting the other team out. Each game has minimum of 51 definite moments of pain and uncertainty.
But for paying observers at Washington's latest subsidized monument to mediocrity this summer, those many moments won't be the only thing they'll have to endure.
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