Disaster on the field, nice night at the ballpark

The last time I witnessed someone hit a home run on the first pitch of a ballgame was high school. I last saw a grand slam in person in high school as well. And the last time I saw Mike O’Connor look as young as he looked tonight was — I think — a Gonzaga at Mount St. Joe’s doubleheader in 1996. The final damage tonight was 11-0, Marlins.

We cheered for Mike as always, but it was an ugly night. That first-pitch homer clearly got in his head. As the Post noted (in reporter Chico Harlan’s unfortunate first game on the beat), the start was Mike’s first since late 2006. Only down that run when he got the inning’s third out, he trudged off the field with his head down and may have been the last player to make it into the dugout. He had control problems as the game went on, dumping a bunch in the dirt. When Manny finally gave the hook, Mike was standing behind the mound. He couldn’t have looked more overwhelmed.

The rest of the Nats didn’t play much better. We managed three hits and continued to look defensively lackluster. As has happened at every game I’ve seen so far, several outfield hits appeared more playable than we played them. In other news, the Nats ejected — or almost ejected, hard to tell from the other side of the field — a fan who threw back a home run ball. Later, in the top-of-the-dugout karaoke contest, a kid who tried to sing Gwen Stefani as Johnny Cash lost to a girl whose microphone didn’t work.

But what made everything better? Great seats. My dad picked up four in the lower bowl, the best seats we’ve ever had for the Nats, and Rob came down from New York for Mother’s Day weekend. Despite the odds, the least in her favor since the Cooper-infamous ’93 Memorial Stadium incident, my mom was not hit by a foul ball. The seats made 11-0 more amusing than painful, and we had a good time in the gallows. The weekend weather turned around to be some of the best we’ve had at the stadium this year.

A note for fans going to weekend games in the next month: The gameday Metro conditions were some of the best I’ve had. As WMATA warned everyone about new delays for track work, no one paid much attention to the “shuttle trains” option running between L’Enfant and the Navy Yard. But they were as smooth as regular service, running every few minutes. If you were coming from Virginia, there was no impact. If you were a Red Line person, you had an extra transfer but no more issues.

A nice bonus was ending up in the Metro’s testing car for the dark-rubber flooring. (See more about the test floors.) The surface was solid, attractive and even more non-slip than I expected. I’d have to try the car a few more times, but this ride felt like the end of Metro carpet to me. The relative emptiness of the car and the surprise of the shuttle train working out so well may have helped.

Update, the next morning: The ball-tossing fan was indeed ejected (see the comments). Among other early reaction, the BallparkGuys forum split on the incident, and Nationals Pride was not pleased.

Goodbye to Montreal, hello to RFK, goodbye to RFK, hello …

This post has been lost in draft mode for a while. More opening day pics are around somewhere and awaiting uploading. Got back to the park today with Jess and a visiting Rob, ran into Hilary outside, sat in our new seats for the first and had a good time despite the first chill in a while. Finally made it to the front of the lines at Gifford’s, and the expected taste, portions and service were all in great effect. Hot chocolate went down fast.

Unofficial night one at the ballpark: Cold, great views

The night was a cold one, with four layers in the picture above. But there were no bad seats in the house. After much off-season ticket hustling, beyond the usual season-ticket endeavors, we spent last night at the beautiful new Nationals Ballpark. We entered behind the right-field wall, walked to the upper deck to check out our regular-season seats, circled to the river-side ramps, and took our exhibition seats above the left-field home bullpen. We didn’t find a bad seat. The space felt significantly smaller than its 41,000 capacity, and it was easy to feel at home, minor-league style.

Other positives: The size of the scoreboard was as wild in person as it was in photos. The ballpark staff were uniformly friendly, and there appeared to be managers looking for issues throughout the park. The sound system was maybe the best I’ve ever heard in a mass-audience setting, and everything was well lit. The strings of white lights over the outfield gate plaza were a nice touch, and we hoped the team would add more of them. Nick Johnson got good applause for his return, and Mike O’Connor was in strong form in relief. The roar heading into his final K felt like an indicator of stadium noise to come. With our seats for the regular season, the view of the field was so good that I forgot to look the other way and check if we had a view of the Capitol too. A Gifford’s cart — too cold last night for a Dinger, but I heard good things — and a mini-bar were in the immediate vicinity.

Negatives: The stadium didn’t feel like it was ours yet. It felt it could be ours, but just wasn’t ours yet. Super Pretzels were still as bad as ever. (Need to invest in a Curly W pretzel next time.) Hot chocolate was a hard get. Too much generic stadium music, but a good number of creative choices still made the mix. The women’s restrooms reportedly had no mirrors. (But the restroom trash cans reportedly missing at the park’s college game last week were there). Food had big lines, but…

Wait and see: The food lines amazingly surpassed RFK in length. Hot dog and pretzel lines were bad, but Five Guys reached a line of 50 or so and Ben’s Chili Bowl may have reached triple-digits. But this type of thing could only improve in a stadium like we have now. It wasn’t a question of elevators and ovens, just of lines and storefront logistics. Message board reports this morning said Five Guys was planning to reorient their entire operations overnight.

Next up: Headed to Opening Night tonight. More layers.

Guess I shouldn’t have complained about the hat

Last year, I complained about MLB’s merchandise for St. Patrick’s day. The Yankees and Red Sox got all kinds of stuff. Far less prominent teams got a selection. The Nats got a hat. One green hat was disappointing. The knock-off guys on the corner sold hats across the rainbow all season long.

But I guess no one bought the hat. This year, MLB has given us nothing. Only 13 teams get green merch for the holiday, and the Nats don’t make the cut. Of those who do, the Red Sox take the lead with 29 items, and the Mets grab second with 20 items. The Yanks freefall to third with 19 items. The Cubs get 14 and the White Sox a dozen. Oakland again leads the ridiculous meter. After leaving me incredulous last year with a pair of St. Patrick’s Day sweatshirts, this year brings two shirts and hoody.

Losing RFK

Yesterday, I watched most of the Cubs game, and RFK was hosting “Blocktoberfest.” The Nats season was hypothetically over months ago and technically done two weeks ago. Now October baseball was happening, and RFK had beer music. With the Nats done and headed to the new stadium, RFK died without hosting a baseball playoff.

About that. RFK didn’t deserve to host a baseball playoff. Not with Bob Short’s Senators — so history’s told me — and not with the Nationals. If you couldn’t feed 3/4 of a stadium worth of people without chaos, if you couldn’t make the soccer lines disappear on the field, if you couldn’t match the entertainment of single-A ball, you didn’t deserve to lie to the country on television and pretend all was fine. All wasn’t fine at RFK when the Nats got there three years ago, and many of the same flaws showed on their last day. When they dug up home plate in a horribly anticlimatic ceremony, paling next to Baltimore’s helicopter run across the city, the scene was …

Take the food. On the first day, an exhibition, you couldn’t find a cup of anything hot in the sub-40 temps. On the first official day, a week later, stands ran out of food. Over the next three season, I spotted exactly one hot dog vendor in the upper deck. My theory became that the hot boxes were ordered but never arrived.

Meanwhile, every beer man or woman in the stadium would bump his or her cold case into the notches on the upper deck railing. Every one of vendors would be surprised. The last day at the stadium saw stands with lines filling the concourses, lines reaching up to stand workers afraid to leave their registers to get drink cups. These workers owed some money to the stadium’s ticket-takers and ushers, much more often than not friendly and helpful. You were happy at the door and happy in your seat, but you were hungry and you stayed there. You knew what would happen if you went out.

What you got out of the stadium was what you put in. You had to move in and believe it was your place. It was your first place, all you could afford. Your seats were never amazing but had a great view. Your teams were never talented but never quitters. Your high points were never the playoffs, but you got to see the first game, the presidential pitch, the Zimmerman walkoff, the Soriano run to left, the Chief’s T-shirt gun, the Domingo national anthem, and the last game. You got a taste of RFK concrete 20 years ago with the Redskins preseasons, the U.S. soccer chants, the Orioles exhibitions, and the idea of home baseball, and the concrete was better than the food.

Someday the dogs will make it up the ramps

Jess sent me a New York Times story this week where the reporter spends an evening as a Shea Stadium hot dog vendor. I’ve ordered a couple hot dogs in the work cafeteria the last few weeks for ballpark reasons alone. Overly sentimental lede and close aside, I liked the story a lot.

“To my chagrin, most of the Mets fans in the field boxes to which I was assigned recognized that I was a rookie vendor, and took a kind of amused pity on me. … I mentioned that my day job was writing. ‘Fantastic,’ he replied. ‘This is like ordering a hot dog from Hemingway.'”

But I have to dispute one quoted claim from the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council. “Americans will eat enough hot dogs at major league ballparks this year to stretch from R.F.K. Stadium in Washington, D.C., to AT&T Park in San Francisco,” the Council tells the reporter. I don’t buy that.

If you were making such a chain of hot dogs, as R.F.K. still can’t get roaming hot dog vendors into the upper deck, and as the stands on that level — my level — ususally run out, I don’t think you could make it to the next stadium west, the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. You’d have to go north to Camden Yards or Philadelphia for more dogs, and then you’d run out somewhere in the West, probably before or after Denver. Who knows if they even eat hot dogs in Denver. They probably eat skis. Or buffalo … the skis of meat.

Bang the lid slowly

At every Nats game I’ve attended so far this year, I’ve looked for hot dog vendors in the stands. I came up empty until the game last Friday night, when a girl came by several times with a half-sized, unmarked warmer box. My theory in earlier games was that the hot dog boxes were on order and hadn’t arrived yet. Friday night’s contraption didn’t change my mind.

The Washington Times has more on RFK’s hot dog troubles.

A few merchandise vendors have also taken to the stands in recent weeks, but there wasn’t been any giant foam finger controversy previously. None that was publicized, at least. My only issue with them (the vendors) has been their yelling. They haven’t. They’ve talked as they’ve passed my section, but four rows away I haven’t caught a word. I’ve wanted one of those giant foam fingers too. I’ve been waiting to hear a price — hopefully $5, maybe $6, no way $10 — but I haven’t decided to chase down the giant foam finger man. Yet.

Nationals notes

Moderate Screeching
When the Nats announced their new mascot was Screech the (baby) Eagle, a good number of people were unhappy. Personally, I hated the name. Far too Saved by the Bell. But I liked the bird and its jiggly belly, and that’s where that good number of people disagreed. Apparently, both the Caps and United already had eagle mascots. Who knew?

In the ensuing complaints, the one I liked best was Patrick Hruby’s in the Washington Times. Although getting political at some points, the most sure-fire way to be ignored in a true D.C. sports discussion, he did find the space to make several legit suggestions. Among them? “Uncle Sam. Dancing on the dugout? Winner. Stepping over the dugout with the help of 10-foot stilts? Winner again.”

Singing the anthem
After RFK’s opening night, it was noted how some of the fans continued the Oriole tradition of yeling the “Oh” in “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner….” It was also noted how these fans were then booed down during the anthem’s final lines. Much respects to the anthem, of course, but it was nice to see the Baltimore rooters slapped.

John Kelley wrote for the Post about the fallout.

Speaking of music, we got to the ballpark too late to hear the chorus from Duke Ellington School of the Arts sing the national anthem, so I don’t know if Sumner Steinfeldt’s concerns were borne out.

Sumner wrote: “Many of those who will be attending Washington Nationals games have been and remain Orioles fans.” And so many of them may be accustomed to shouting out Oh! [for Orioles] during the national anthem. Sumner urges all Nationals fans “not to follow the Baltimore tradition. It shows support for a team other than our home team and for the owner who did everything he could to keep baseball out of D.C.”

Instead, he recommends shouting “free” after “o’er the land of the . . . .”

Doing this, Sumner wrote, would indicate “our desire for independence from Major League Baseball, which has damaged our team so much, and from Mr. Angelos, who is still trying to make the Nationals subservient to his team.”

True, but we practically yell “free” already. Led by the performer, we all hold the note, and half the stadium sees it as an excuse to raise the volume and put their caps back on. Mr. Sumner’s message is a good one, but it’d get lost.

In my opinion, what we should be shouting is “say.” If you want to think that’s because D.C. is having its say on the issue, go ahead. If you want to think it’s ignoring “oh” and saying the meaningless word right next to it, I’m with you.

The Times has a solid story on the bouncing seats along RFK’s left-field line. Even from the upper deck, it’s something to see. The moveable bleachers roll like the stands you see in world soccer. Upstairs, I haven’t noticed the deck moving yet like it did during old Redskins games; I don’t think the crowd’s been full enough. But like with a lot of things with the Nationals, who knows what their first marketing campaign will do.

First hit
The Post‘s Mike Wise did a whole column about Tony Blanco’s first hit in the majors. Whether you know Blanco or not, whether you follow sports or not, the column’s worth reading.

Schneider troubles
Nats catcher Brian Schneider had two errors in the opening week of the season, and that was surprising because he had two in all of 2004. The Post did a story about it and got a quote from manager and amiable quote-machine Frank Robinson:

“No one’s anymore surprised than I am. Two games he’s made errors, on those throws I almost fell off the bench. Those are two of the worst throws I’ve seen from him in the three-plus years he’s been here. He’s just so good, it seems like it’s automatic sometimes. Sometimes I sit on the bench saying, ‘Steal! Steal! Steal!'”

On television
Katz says I’m in a WETA promo for the Nats. “You’re watching the game with a very serious look on your face.” Sounds about right. This me is also sitting behind a railing and wearing a baseball cap, and that’s exactly where I was for the exhibition game. I haven’t seen the commercial yet, but keep your eyes peeled. Next, the Burger King brings me breakfast.

In relief
What the ailing bullpen needs: Juan Dixon.

I love the Nats, but …

Major League Baseball could do better.

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