An out-of-town tryout used to be a staple of the theater. It was where producers ran their musicals up the flagpole to see what was saluted and what sagged in the breeze before fixing up the rough patches, packing up the trunks and transporting the whole shooting match to the Great White Way. Like those barnstorming tours that wound their way from Spring Training north to Opening Day, you don’t get out-of-town tryouts much in the theater anymore.
The audiences for these Broadway-bound previews were generally in the Northeast, not far from New York, yet worlds away: Philly, Boston, Baltimo’, as the itinerary went in Kiss Me Kate. New Haven, too. Washington? Not so much as far as I know. Yet last week, I felt I was privy to a dry run of sorts: Another ballpark op’nin’, another show — one season before the spotlight will be beamed directly onto the Great Blue & Orange Way.
Of course I wanted to go to Nationals Park because it was there. Every Major League ballpark I’ve seen (and I’ve seen 32 now) is Everest to me. And of course I wanted to go because the Mets would be playing. But there was a little extra curiosity factored into my D.C. travel plans. The Nats would be playing their eighth home game ever in their new digs. Though I’d been to a few stadia in their first season, I’d never shown up this early in the life of a park. Thus, I wanted to get a sense, just under one year from the curtain rising on Citi Field, what an almost pristine ballpark feels like.
It feels pretty good, in its out-of-town way.
Ya gotta load up any assessment you make of a ballpark as a visiting fan with a suitcase of asterisks. It’s different for you because you’re there tonight and you’re leaving tomorrow. Even if you plan on returning, it’s not home, not yours. Even if the place has still got that new park smell, yours aren’t the nostrils that are unclogged after breathing in the stale air of its predecessor. The diehard Washington Nationals fan, however rare and relatively novice, is the one who just escaped from RFK. It may take that creature months to detect any drawbacks in anything that isn’t the Federal Baseball Penitentiary .
Nationals Park offers much nicer surroundings. The now-reabandoned RFKFBP was any port in a storm for the post-Expos. It was the Hooverville of the National League East. It was Olympic Stadium without the élan. Anything that succeeded RFK — with the possible exception of the Days Inn where I bunked for the night — would have been an improvement.
It was instructive to wander the concourses of Nationals Park, to gaze at the shiny seats and scoreboard, to try to figure out why they put stuff where they did and wonder what it will be like next year when it’s us getting the lay of our own land.
With Citi Field far along, I don’t know that the Mets are looking for cues from their divisional rival. They could do worse than to borrow generously from their DiamondVision or NationalVision or whatever it’s called. It’s huge and it’s clear. They could also note what the Nats missed, like a permanent tracker of what the batter did in his last at-bat(s). With so much high-def hardware at work, there should be relevant data always at the ready, not just Marlon Anderson’s height.
My friend Jeff and I sat in some very fine what we’ll call field level seats in short left last Wednesday night, pretty comparable to where I was eight nights earlier at Shea . There is definitely something to be said for seats that are tilted toward home plate. There is also something to be said for sloping the steps in such a way that once somebody stands up in your midst (to buy a hot dog, to sell a beer, to mindlessly stare), you the seated are not blocked from the action. Mild-mannered Jeff rightly morphed into a bear as backs and shoulders and heads kept us from seeing a damn thing. Given the genuine obstacle to line of sight this non-action represented, I’m guessing getting up constantly is a cherished local tradition.
New rule: If you have a rookie pitcher setting the world on figurative fire , stand and clap. If it’s the third inning and nothing’s going on but a 2-1 count, sit the fudge down. Perhaps the “tennis seating” decorum I’ve seen employed in other places (even Philadelphia), where you are momentarily kept from returning to your seat while baseball is in progress, should be de rigueur. Given the price of a ticket, you should be entitled to see as much of it as you (or Jeff) paid for.
Not that Nationals fans, even the one who lobbed a snide junkball about the high Met payroll (which explained why we won , according to him), struck me as rude. I’m not sure I saw a whole lot of Nationals fans, at least relative to the ton of outlanders who descended on Washington last week. If there is one tradition that trailed the Expos to their final resting spot, it was that we, as in the Metropolitan we , were everywhere . No tension because of the crowd composition, at least not from where I sat and craned. No booing of Mets by Mets fans for a change (we’re all in this together when we congregate elsewhere). No escalating drunken bravado on a Wednesday night à la what reports suggest has become the norm in certain slices of Citizens Bank. The Nats didn’t come close to selling out their eighth game ever in their new park and that was with a generous helping of us on board. As some have been known to suggest in the seat of government regarding other invasions, they should be greeting Mets fans with flowers and chocolates.
If they did, however, would they know where to find them? While Nationals Park did give lie to half of the old bromide that Washington is a city of southern efficiency and northern charm (I liked the line of golf-shirted greeters who profusely thanked us for coming), it doesn’t appear that all the kinks have been ironed out. Concessions still seemed a bit overwhelmed, even without an SRO audience. The dreaded taking of the bottlecap, which I thought was a Shea-only pre-emptive punishment, was exercised at one stand, but not at another. Uncertainty of how to work all the levers extended to more visible facets of the operation as well.
When Duaner Sanchez entered the game, the massive scoreboard identified him as UNKNOWN. Innings earlier, Angel Pagan, No. 16 on the Mets, was billed as Jay Payton, No. 16 on the Orioles — there was even a picture of our 2000 centerfielder in his Bird garb to complete the illusion that the Mets might win a pennant this year. (Payton was in the system, Jeff inferred, because the Nats played the O’s in an exhibition game, one of those dress rehearsals intended to, yup, iron the kinks out before the ballgames count.)
Anybody could make if not those mistakes then something like them. Shea was several decades old when its board ops declared Jason Phillips’ first Major League hit belonged to Vance Wilson. It was even older when it randomly assigned Pedro Martinez’s 3,000th strikeout a year ahead of time and to nobody in particular. At Shea, it’s quirky. At a brand new facility, it’s time for another run-through. For Citi Field, it’s a cautionary tale to really think through everything (like where to not mount a mile-high home plate camera), really test everything and really teach everybody how to use everything.
It’s perverse fun to nitpick — even Natpick — but there was a lot to like about the new place. It’s easy as hell to get to by Metro, which, in turn, is always easy as hell to navigate. Nationals Park is one block from the Navy Yard station which is already more efficiently coordinated after a game than the 44-year-old Willets Point-Shea Stadium stop. There are nice if not expansive nods to Washington baseball history around the main concourse and, let’s face it, there’s not all that much Washington baseball history to show off. The Nats even tip their caps to greats of the game from other cities (perhaps they understand much of their trade will come from elsewhere). Though you have to be pretty high up to notice the Capitol dome and such, the cherry blossoms  planted above the outfield are a phenomenal District touch. Balls don’t seem to fly out of this joint any more than they did RFK, so the saplings are probably safe from falling objects.
The Nats skipped the bricks and the overwrought homages to a mythic baseball past. The clean, well-lighted, modern approach was refreshing even if red brick can serve as an effective Pavlovian cue to get fields-of-dreamy about one’s surroundings. You don’t always, however, need to be enveloped by a manufactured past. That said, there was something about Nationals Park that made it feel — and this isn’t intended to come out as derisive as it will — like a very nice and very large Grapefruit League park. It wasn’t sterile as much as not yet defined, not yet lived in. Maybe after eight games, it’s not supposed to be.
Nationals Park may not be the coziest bed & breakfast of ballparks, but it’s at least a reasonably functional Marriott. It’s very much worth a visit (though you should probably ante up for a reasonably functional Marriott if you’re staying over and eschew the Days Inn of Silver Spring, Md.; trust me on this one). The Mets will be back in August if it’s the Mets you want to see. I’d suggest seeing it before they sell the naming rights because, honestly, the best part of this particular ballpark relative to those I’ve visited in the past half-decade or so was the lack of a suffocating corporate presence. No kidding. I realized as I loped about before the game how nice it was to not be reminded every six feet that some great financial institution or fine American brewer was bringing me this baseball game.
That may sound like projected carping over World Class Citi Field, and maybe it is a little, but the way I noticed there was no corporation sponsoring everything is the way I used to notice when there was one. Know what I mean? It used to be strange to see a company name plastered all over the place. Now we accept it as a part of doing business like we accept so much of everything in this world. For a night, corporate naming rights weren’t a fact of ballpark life and it was a surprisingly welcome sight to not see.
As for trying to discern, pesky aesthetics aside, what our nights and days will be like as we edge closer to our new stage, you cross your fingers and you hold your heart that it will be worth the hype and worth the wait and worth the sacrifice of what many of us adore  and are instinctively reluctant to let go. What will it be like when the new ballpark isn’t someone else’s, but ours? Duaner Sanchez’s mysterious D.C. identity notwithstanding, that is the great unknown.