Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: Halfway There

The opening chapter for Nationals Park had a storybook ending … at least for those who saw it.

The eighth inning has just ended and fans fleeing the cold air, and the anticipated post-game Metro delays, are already packed shoulder to shoulder inside the subway cars. It is one of the typical mass-transit moments that inspire sympathy for sardines and uneasiness at unexpected noises.

Somewhere amid the crush, a man groans … a little too loud for the comfort of his cramped train car companions. They look at the perp, a middle-aged father clutching his son by the shoulder as he looks at the screen of his PDA. When the groaner notices that all eyes are upon him, he explains himself.

“Zimmerman just hit a walk-off to win it in the ninth.”

“Awww!”

Thus sounds the simultaneous sigh of the confined, collectively confounded by Murphy's Law. Forgoing the dramatic finale is the price they pay for their cold-weather cowardice.

Next to me, a teenage boy locks his eyes on a middle-aged woman who is still shivering from the sub-40 degree temperatures outside.

“I hate you, Mom,” the son deadpans.

It was one of the few fan disappointments on the long-awaited day that inaugurated the Washington Nationals' tax-payer financed stadium in Southeast D.C. For hours before the first pitch Sunday night, fans milled about the modern masterpiece that replaced the decrepit RFK Stadium. They sampled the finer fare (Hasta la vista, Aramark), took in the views of the Capitol Dome and the Washington Monument, and enjoyed the airy feel of the stadium's concourses compared to the cave-like interior of its predecessor.
Then came the main event. The fans welcomed the home nine with cheers, or in the cases of Cristian Guzman and Elijah Dukes, droning chants of “Guuuuuuz” and “Duuuuuukes.” They hailed the chief, President George W. Bush with a mix of applause and boos (“Buuuuuush”?), as he marked the occasion with the first pitch.

Later, the roughly 40,000 red-capped fans screamed when Nick Johnson gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead by driving in his first run in over a year after returning from a fractured fibula. All of it before Ryan Zimmerman's finishing flourish.

Inside the park, it was perfect. Cold, but perfect. You could measure such perfection with the checklist of hallmarks above, or you could just measure it by the mile-wide, post-game smile on the face of ESPN's Peter Gammons. When Gammons, who has seen more years of baseball than Petco Park, PNC Park, Safeco Field and Camden Yards combined, beams like a kid on Christmas morning, you know that something is going right.

Outside the park, it is different. Beyond the gates of the stadium, blessed with the label of “cathedral” by Commissioner Bud Selig, lies little for fans to enjoy. No restaurants, no shops, nowhere to kill time while waiting out the Metro Madness following the final out, just fenced-off construction sites and an industrial site beyond the first-base entrance that reminds of a Roman salt mine.

When that changes, then the true beauty of bringing baseball to Washington will be realized … at least for the pragmatic among us.

The reason I backed a city-financed stadium was largely because it could create a rejuvenated haven in a formerly blighted neighborhood. That won't be realized for several years yet, but the eventual impact could be huge.

Some opponents of the stadium still complain that the money should have been shunted into D.C.'s troubled school system. Those who continue to harp on that point should consider that the District spent more money per student than any of the 50 states in 2001-02, with few lasting gains to show for it. The D.C. school system has many problems to address — financing and money are not chief among them.

But if you still want to see the money earmarked for the stadium redirected to the District's students, you may get your wish. Tax revenues generated from the stadium-centric entertainment district ought to provide a lasting, increased revenue stream that will bolster the District of Columbia's coffers. Economists have formerly derided the notion that a tax-payer built stadium ultimately generates revenue for the state or city that finances the construction. The theory centers around the notion that each fan has a set amount of money they spend each year on entertainment. If they're spending that money at the ballpark, then they're not spending it elsewhere in the state/city, as they would have done without the option to go to a game. Thus the ballpark is only redistributing that entertainment money, not bringing in more.

I see the ballpark in D.C. as a different kind of model. This is a destination that will draw fans from both Virginia and Maryland, and those entertainment dollars that would have been spent in Clarendon (Virginia) or Chevy Chase (Maryland) are now dished out to the District.

The subway ride home bears out the theory to some degree, still packed even after stopping at two transfer hubs. The sting from forgoing the game's fairy tale finale is not subsiding.

“We left early and we're not even halfway home yet,” the son groans, the family now en route on the Red Line to their destination at Silver Spring.

After the stadium's opening on Sunday however, the plan for baseball benefiting the District is halfway home. And for fans who more concerned with long fly balls than long-term fiscal pictures, it was certainly the better half.

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