Baseball has been back in our nation’s capital for more than a decade, but it remains MLB’s newest market, with the Expos’ move from Montreal to become the Nationals representing the most recent franchise change. So to the traveling baseball fan, Washington can still be something of a mystery.
The same applies to Nationals Park, open since 2008. It’s located in an area of the District not often visited by tourists, and it isn’t usually thought of as a prime destination for baseball fans, in part because the home team hasn’t been a contender for most of its time in Washington.
But times are changing, the Nationals have become a consistently good team, and Nationals Park is gaining more of a positive reputation as a place to watch a game. And it’s got quite a few surprises, as well. Mrs. Fan and I, with the help of a couple locally based friends, finally got the chance to check out the ballpark for ourselves and were plenty entertained — and not just by what was happening on the field.
- The Approach
Nationals Park is situated in the Navy Yard neighborhood of D.C., right next to the Anacostia River. If neither of those landmarks sound familiar, you’re not alone — it’s not close to the National Mall, the U.S. Capitol or anything else you might feel like visiting as a normal tourist in Washington. In fact, it was considered a run-down neighborhood before the ballpark was built, so I came in believing that’s what I was going to see when I visited: a ballpark nestled beside old houses and dark alleys. I’m happy to say, though, that it’s not even close to true; more on that in the next section.
Still, the ballpark’s location means you will probably have to go through a little bit of effort to get there, since it’s not close to most hotels or tourist-heavy areas of the region. This is where Washington’s subway system becomes the visiting fan’s best friend; the Metro is a popular way to get to the game for tourists and locals alike. As long as you can get to the Green Line (via transfer points at Gallery Place and L’Enfant Plaza), the ballpark is an easy ride away via the Navy Yard/Ballpark station. In fact, on the train we boarded, the conductor referred to it as “the baseball train,” though I’m not sure if he meant that it was a special train in service because of the ballgame or just that the train was headed to the game.
If you plan on driving, the ballpark is alongside South Capitol Avenue — thoroughfares named Capitol Avenue radiate in all four cardinal directions from the U.S. Capitol, so if you can find the Capitol and then figure out which way south is, you’ll be in good shape. There’s plenty of parking just north of the venue, including two parking structures just beyond the left-field gates.
Parking Panda is a popular service in Washington DC that makes finding and paying for parking a whole lot easier. Visit their website to view all of the parking options in the area and compare their prices/locations. Simply pick one that works for you, pay for it, they’ll email you a parking pass and save you a spot! You may even save a few bucks in the process.
- The Build-Up
We chose to meet our two friends, Noisy Summer and Harrisburg Senator, downtown for some food and drink before heading out to the game. Thanks to the Metro, getting your pregame party on outside the ballpark district is absolutely an option. You might be surprised how many bars and restaurants around downtown — particularly in the area around the Verizon Center and Gallery Place, where we spent our pregame time — are dressed up in Nats flags and banners and stuff, but of course you don’t have to hang out at a sports bar before heading out.
You could see some of Washington’s sights, such as the Washington Monument or its many museums. We visited a couple museums ourselves during the afternoon and came across probably a couple hundred fans in either Nationals or Pirates gear (the Pirates being the opponent on this particular day). With a few Metro stops near most tourist attractions, the ballpark is typically no more than a 15-minute subway jaunt away.
But if you want to get the transportation out of the way before getting something to eat/drink pregame, the ballpark neighborhood is very lively — perhaps surprisingly so. Turns out this particular area is one of many in the District that’s getting a major influx of construction, with lofts springing up practically everywhere. Along with it are quite a few restaurants and bars, which are hopping before games and stay that way well after the final out (at least they did on this night, a Saturday). Try walking along M Street between Capitol and New Jersey avenues, a couple blocks north of the park, for the largest selection of establishments.
- The Ambiance
Built at the tail end of MLB’s wave of new ballpark construction, Nationals Park doesn’t offer a whole lot in the way of unique architectural traits. And because the Nats have divorced themselves from the Expos’ history, there isn’t much in the way of tradition to soak in. But the good news is, you don’t necessarily need those things to have a good time watching a game.
What Nationals Park does do well, perhaps as well as any park I’ve seen in the majors, is promote a party atmosphere. If you enter through the left-field gate (and if you’re arriving via the Metro, the left-field gate is the closest accessible gate), you’ll see this right away. Past the turnstiles, you’ll find yourself in a wide plaza lined with planter trees and with string lights hung above — it kinda feels like walking into an outdoor bar. They take this a step further in the second deck behind center field, where there’s a long, swanky bar, a couple dozen stand-up bar tables and a huge TV displaying the game to complement the the string lights and planter trees. If you really are there to party, you might want to consider spending most of your time in this area — not only can you imbibe to your heart’s content, there’s also a Shake Shack, a Blue Smoke BBQ and a couple other eateries nearby.
Our four-person party made it through the turnstiles just before first pitch, and after locating the nearest escalators (not far from the left-field gate), we made it to our seats in Section 417 in the bottom of the first — of course, we made a stop to buy beers along the way. I had bought the tickets in that area, along the first-base line, in hopes of getting a nice view of the Capitol, but alas, all the previously mentioned construction north of the ballpark obscured that view — only the very top of the dome was visible from where we were.
If there’s a time to be in your seats, it’s the middle of the fourth inning, when the Presidents’ Race takes place — though it’s usually rigged unlike the Brewers’ sausage race, it’s still entertaining to watch. I resisted a visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a famous D.C. eatery that operates stands at the park, but we had beers in hand again as the Nationals rallied from behind, winning in walk-off fashion. There was a postgame concert, but we retreated to one of the bars outside the ballpark after the game. The streets were nice and bustling for up to an hour after the game. All in all, it was a pretty ideal baseball environment, if you ask me.
1500 S. Capitol St. SE
Washington, DC 20003
All times local