Washington Nationals fans and players gave several changes to the Nationals Park experience a test run on Friday as the Nationals played the first of two preseason exhibition games against the Minnesota Twins in advance of Monday’s season opener in Atlanta.
Among the most talked-about changes was the new safety netting strung from section 116 to 129 above the team dugouts (I previously wrote about its anticipated impact on the fan experience). Fans behind the dugouts, who had enjoyed eight seasons of unobstructed interaction with players, will now view the game from behind a high protective net. An informal survey of fan reactions ranged from “awful” (from fans in the first few rows) to “not as bad as I thought” from fans who sit further back.
At its debut Friday night, the net certainly caught both fans and players by surprise. Many children behind the dugout followed a tradition of bringing baseball gloves to the game, and — oblivious to the net between them — screamed for players to toss them a ball at every half inning. Sadder still, a few players throughout the night forgot and tried, leading the ball to either bounce back onto the field or fall into the dugout. Old habits die hard.
Between innings, Nats fans will find that in-game host Michael Ploger has been replaced by a fresh young face named Derek. Ploger moved on to a new career as a sports reporter.
As part of a new sponsorship deal with Anheuser-Busch, the former Miller Lite Scoreboard walk has been rechristened the Budweiser Terrace. On game days, from the time the gates open until 30 minutes before first pitch, beers at the Budweiser Terrace bar will be $5.
Extended song lyrics are painted on the terrace steps
Food concession changes for 2016 are relatively few compared to previous years. The always-crowded Shake Shack on the terrace has been doubled in size, taking over the adjacent space once occupied by sister chain El Verano Taqueria (El Verano moves to a small freestanding kiosk nearby).
The Nationals’ off-season “pitch your product” contest resulted in two new food concessions. On the main concourse behind left field, Haute Dogs and Fries replaces original Nats Park vendor Hard Times Cafe. Goodbye Cincinnati Chili. Hello hot dogs with toppings like New York Reuben and Vietnamese Banh Mi, plus lamb sliders and tater tots.
The other local winner, Pinch Dumpling, is up on the Gallery level, as part of a conscious effort to bring more exclusive food items to the fans in 300- and 400-level seats. The steamed or fried beef, pork, or vegetable dumplings should be a welcome addition, though I’m worried that with a price of $10 for six dumplings, its location behind the $5 Grandstand seats might not be the smartest real estate decision.
Across from Pinch, two new concessions by DC restaurateur Mike Isabella are expected to open on April 7: Catchfly will feature Southern-style food such as ribs, coleslaw, popcorn chicken and waffle fries. Kapnos at the Park will have gyros, falafel, cheese steaks, fried Greek potatoes and hummus.
Wondering where your jerk chicken went? After two seasons next to the Nationals Park Kids Zone, Jammin’ Island BBQ has moved back upstairs to a cart next to the Bud Light Loft. Its previous location will be something called “MLB Knockout,” presumably an extension of the Kids Zone.
Nursing mothers at last have an air conditioned private lounge at Nationals Park that even includes play space for toddlers. The new Lansinoh Nursing Mothers Lounge opened late last season and is located on the mezzanine at section 223.
Splurging for PNC Diamond Club tickets? A complete renovation of exclusive dining area and lounge behind homeplate has dramatically expanded its capacity. The facility was stripped of most baseball memorabilia and expanded to two levels that appear to be jam-packed with chairs and tables. The expense account crowd might feel a little more like cattle with this new setup, but they’re more likely to find a table during rain delays, and the club seating no longer extends to a tent outside the stadium.
For kids of all ages, a new pin trading station has been installed near section 138, where hundreds of pins can be purchased or simply traded, Disney-style.
Finally, the Nationals promised better selection and pricing at the Team Stores in 2016, and what better way to expand selection than by introducing a whole section filled with racing president souvenirs. Racing president blankets, racing president patches, racing president hats and t-shirts, racing president magnets, racing president banners, and stuffed presidents are but a few of the souvenir items featuring George, Tom, Abe, Teddy, and Bill.