I have searched Nationals Park high and low, climbed up and down its stairways and ramps, circled and wandered its broad concourses, waited in lines short and long, and, finally, after three hours and nine innings, I have found the one thing that the recent era of luxury stadiums and retro-ballparks have not introduced to the world of sports.
Indeed, way up here and way down the left field line, in the top row of section 401 and a very long Ryan Zimmerman foul ball from the $325 box seats behind home plate, is something that has (along with the bullpen cart and rational, reasoned conversation on talk radio) all but vanished from sports:
An inexpensive seat.
Yes, it's true. In the newest addition to the wave of American stadiums, in a ballpark that cost taxpayers more than $600 million, where not only do box seats behind home plate cost $325, but seats in center field can go for $70 a crack and nachos fetch up to $8.50, there are seats with a view of the entire field for just $5.
Sure, I'm up higher than Bill O'Reilly's blood pressure at full bellow, but it's really a pretty decent seat. And you can't beat the price. As Nationals fan John Schulz says between entries in his scorebook, "It's cheaper than the cost of a hot dog." (Sadly, this is no exaggeration.)
At $5 a seat, you can bring an entire extended family to the game for the cost of one ticket to Fenway. It might be the biggest bargain in baseball outside of Josh Hamilton's $396,000 contract. "And you can even see the Capitol and the Washington Monument," says a fan named John McQuaid.
I've come to DC as part of a beltway road swing to snag the last remaining big league stadiums needed to complete my collection: Nationals Park and the 4-year-old field in Philadelphia (as always, I never use a corporate name for a stadium, if I can at all help it; I will reconsider this policy when instead of paying the teams corporations start paying me to place their names in stories).
Nationals Park replaces as the team's home field Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, which was one of the last in a breed steadily disappearing in America: the big league stadium designed for multiple sports. There was a span in the 1960s and '70s when almost all professional stadiums were built that way, and 16 major league teams shared a stadium with an NFL team at some point. When the Twins move out of the Metrodome in two years though, there will be only two, the Athletics and the Marlins, and both of those teams are slated to have their own parks (the Marlins tentatively in 2011 and the A's the following year).
Whether you consider that bygone era a time of fiscal responsibility or a time of architecturally abominable, cookie-cutter stadiums foisted on the public largely depends on whether you can afford a seat in the new ballpark's private mezzanine level or a $9 beer from its microbrewery.
This current wave of stadiums began in 1992, when Camden Yards opened in Baltimore and ushered in the era of the retro-ballpark. These baseball-specific ballparks came with built-in nostalgia for the fans, enormous and lavish facilities for the players (the clubhouse at Nationals Park is so sprawling it includes a lost and found section) and revenue streams wider than the Amazon for the owners. They also came with a gigantic price tag for the taxpayer.
Including the ballpark under construction in Minnesota, the combined public cost of the major league ballparks built since Camden Yards is close to $4 billion, including the more than $600 million for this Washington ballpark.
And that's before you factor in Ticketmaster's "convenience" fees.
What have we gotten for our money?
Here at Nationals Park you get an inviting, comfortable stadium with excellent sightlines, wide seats providing plenty of leg room, ample room to move around, a long-range view of the Capitol and Washington Monument from the upper levels along the left field line and a riverside location a very short and enjoyable walk from the Metro station.
Mostly, however, you get constant opportunities to spend even more money.
Now we're all used to high prices at stadiums and movie theaters, but Nationals Park takes this to a new level. Some sample prices:
• Soda: $5
• Hot dog: $5.50
• Pretzel: $6
• Latte: $5.75
• Burrito: $9
• Hamburger: $11
• Crab-cake burger: $14
One stand was selling pizza for $8 a slice. Actually, "selling" is an inaccurate term because I didn't see anyone actually buying or even standing in line for this spectacular deal. When I pointed to the square-shaped slice and asked whether it really was $8, the vendor just nodded his head and laughed.
As with most of the new stadiums, you're free to walk around the entire lower concourse at Nationals Park although, infuriatingly, the view behind home plate is blocked by luxury suites. This wide-ranging access is important because comparison shopping is an absolute must here. While one stand was selling nachos for $8.50, another sold them for $4.50. Hot dogs ranged from $3.50 to $7. A soda at one stand was $5.50 and $4.50 at another. And while that pizza was $8 at the one stand, another gave you substantially more pizza for the same price.
More discouraging than the prices, however, is the lack of history. Most teams go out of their way to incorporate the local baseball history into the new ballparks. Not the Nationals.
Granted, the history of major league baseball in our nation's capital is dreary, providing fans with two failed franchises that abandoned the city, no World Series since 1933 and the perplexing motto, "Washington, First in War, First in Peace and Last in the American League." (I've never quite understood this. Sure, the "Last in the American League" is pretty clear, but what was the rest supposed to mean?)
But where are the statues of Walter Johnson (417 career wins, a 2.17 ERA and 3,508 strikeouts) and Josh Gibson (the great slugger for the Homestead Grays, who shared Griffith Stadium with the Senators)? Where are the tributes to the presidents throwing out each season's ceremonial first pitch? Where is any sense that D.C. hosted major league teams for 70 years before the Nationals arrived? For that matter, where is the customary barbecue stand named after a fat, popular old player? (I sense a golden business opportunity for Dmitri Young when he retires.)
Philadelphia's baseball history has been nearly as sad as Washington's one world championship in its history, just five World Series appearances and more losses than any other baseball franchise (yes, more than even the Cubs) but its new ballpark nonetheless celebrates the best moments of Phillies past. There are wonderful statues everywhere of Philadelphia greats such as Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Robin Roberts, plus Ashburn Alley, a midway of concession stands beyond the outfield.
Better, not only is the concourse view behind home plate not blocked by luxury suites, there are counters at which you can stand and eat or drink at the rear of many seating sections whether you have a ticket for that area or not. And there are enough concession stands to sate Greg Luzinski. The one complaint is that the ballpark is so removed from downtown that the Philadelphia skyline is a remote sight on the horizon.
Prices aside, Philly's stadium and Nationals Park are very good, welcoming places to watch a baseball game and significant improvements over the ballparks they replaced. But I still prefer Camden Yards to both.
Maybe it's the fact that the ballpark was built on the old site of a bar owned by Babe Ruth's father or that Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig's playing streak here or all the old-school architectural details. But whenever I walk into Camden Yards, I get the impression of being in a place that is wonderfully historic and fresh and new. The luxury suites, so jarringly visible in most new parks such as Jacobs Field, are tucked away unobtrusively here. And most important, in the grand B&O Warehouse beyond right field, Camden Yards has what too many of the new parks lack a signature landmark that virtually sings, "YOU ARE HERE."
The first of the luxury retro-ballparks easily remains among the very best (only Pittsburgh's park tops Camden Yards). Or maybe I'm just overwhelmed by the delicious aroma from Boog's Bar-B-Q to be impartial.
Construction began on Camden Yards in summer 1989, just a few weeks after "Field of Dreams" opened in theaters. Not surprisingly, the ballpark's instant sellouts and massive popularity provoked unavoidable cries of "Build It and They Will Come" from other teams desiring their own new luxurious and lucrative cribs. These new parks were supposed to be panaceas for all a team's ills and turn everyone into winners conveniently neglecting the fact that for every team that wins, another team must lose.
Camden Yards changed the sports landscape as much as artificial turf and television, but it also provides a cautionary tale for teams as well. Listening to the Orioles pregame show while driving into Baltimore for a Saturday night interleague matchup, I couldn't help but smile when the announcers went out of their way to mention that there were plenty of good tickets still available.
In defense of airlines yes, really
Pardon me while I take a moment to defend a group that is normally as maligned as telemarketers, child pornographers and Ticketmaster: the airlines.
People love complaining about air travel, particularly now that several airlines have started charging for baggage. Passengers whine about cramped seats, flight delays and long security lines, saying that the "airplane experience" isn't what it once was. Gee, no kidding. And neither is the rush-hour commute "experience."
Hey, air travel might have been "special" in the old days and something you dressed up for when only a limited number of people could afford to fly. But it's a completely different thing when airlines and airports must serve exponentially more people than in the "good old days." And would all these people pining for the golden age really want to return to that era given that it would also mean trips that took three to four times longer and cost five to 10 times more?
A flight my parents took from Milwaukee to Portland in the 1950s took 16 hours and was about the same airfare as the four-hour flight between the two cities goes for today or about 10 times more expensive than today's cost when you factor in inflation.
If you feel more crowded on a plane and we all do it's because, duh, flights are more crowded. And that's because flying is remarkably cheap and convenient compared to what it once was. Even with the recent increases in fees and fares, the cost of air travel has fallen significantly in real dollar terms over the past quarter-century. You want the leg room and the comforts of the "good old days?" Fine. Then pay for first class. It's still probably lower in real terms than what one paid for a coach seat in 1983.
While we love to complain about standing in long security lines, the fact is that most lines these days are relatively short and fairly quick. Showing up an hour before a flight is generally enough time to check in, pass security, grab a sandwich before boarding and complain that you got to the airport too early. (Best way to avoid longer lines: Don't fly in the morning.)
And if an airline is charging for checked baggage? Tough. You can hardly blame them, given their staggering losses due to skyrocketing fuel prices (according to The New York Times, airlines will spend five times as much money on fuel this year as in 2002). If you don't want to pay the $15, pack less and carry it all on (which is just good advice even if they aren't charging extra; you don't need nearly as much stuff as you think you do).
Meanwhile, the travel experience in many ways is far superior to the "good old days." Airport terminals, for one thing, are vastly improved thanks to greatly increased dining and shopping choices. Airlines might not serve you food anymore, but it doesn't matter because you can get a better meal in the terminals at restaurants ranging from Wolfgang Puck to Legal Sea Foods to the Billy Goat Tavern, in addition to the ubiquitous Sbarro. Even if your flight is delayed, you can pass that time more enjoyably than ever at a bookstore, brewpub or clothing store.
So quit grumbling and suck it up. Air travel is far better than we make it out to be.
On the other hand, there was no excuse for United making me sit through "The Bucket List" last week.
Jared in Delaware enjoyed that I mentioned spotting an attendee from the International Conference on Concrete Pavement and points out that this year's conference is being held this month in San Francisco with the official slogan, "The Golden Gate to Tomorrow's Concrete Pavements." Makes you want to cancel your summer vacation plans and book a room, doesn't it?
David Maraniss' "Rome 1960" is subtitled "The Olympics That Changed the World." But just once I would like to see a book subtitled "The [FILL IN THE BLANK] That Had No Effect Whatsoever On The World, But Is Still Really Interesting." Because that would be a good subtitle for this history of the 1960 Games by the Pulitzer Prize winner and author of "When Pride Still Mattered."
Maraniss does not come anywhere close to showing how those Olympics changed the world in any way, but he does tell some good and occasionally fascinating tales about barefooted marathoner Abebe Bikila, hypocritical IOC president Avery Brundage and the beginnings of shoe sponsorships and bidding for broadcast rights, which make for particularly compelling stories.
If you can't make it to Beijing for the Olympics this month, "Rome 1960" is a nice and far cheaper trip to the Games.
THE ROAD WARRIOR RECOMMENDS
If you have a chance, I highly recommend the Best Buddies Challenge ride from Carmel to Hearst Castle on Sept. 6. The charity ride 100 miles, 60 miles or 15 miles is a great cause, and the ride itself is one of the best in the world. For more details, visit the Web site or read my account of riding in the 2006 Challenge.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His Web site is at jimcaple.net, with more installments of "24 College Avenue." His new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans," is on sale now.
Send in your comments and travel questions to Jim, a k a The Road Warrior.