Opening Day Disparities

Photo courtesy of
‘Pickle’s Pub’
courtesy of ‘pvsbond’

Yesterday afternoon in the perfect weather in Baltimore, 46,593 fans turned out at Camden Yards to watch the Orioles open their home season against the Detroit Tigers. A technical sellout for the O’s, while the Nationals drew 2,000 under the capacity for Nationals Park. The weather couldn’t have been more different, and the atmosphere in Baltimore yesterday was of a different character than that of Washington. Two ballparks, both palaces of the sport, but two very different crowds. Why? What essential character is present in Baltimore that is lacked in DC?

It could be a matter of longevity of fanbase, that much is true. The Orioles’ roots in Baltimore go back to 1954, but the franchise is one of the original eight franchises in American League baseball, tracing its heritage to the St. Louis Browns and the Milwaukee Brewers. Their first few seasons, as well as the Nationals’, were rough. From 1954 through 1959, the team spent six seasons in the cellar of their division. In 1959, going 74-80, they finished 6th of 8, and 7th of 8 in attendance, much as the Nationals have done. With 50 years of additional history, you’re going to build a lot of loyalty, especially with three World Series titles, three additional league pennants, and four more playoffs appearances. So yes, a longevity of franchise can build camaraderie through suffering and through success.

But what of atmosphere and ambiance? It’s hard not to see the significant differences between Nationals Park and Camden Yards. Where Nationals Park has nothing but the Bullpen (an ad-hoc space barely constructed over an empty lot), Camden Yards has a number of nearby options for revelry and a strong vendor culture. The street meat is strong in Baltimore, but weak in DC. Let’s look at some that, shall we?Photo courtesy of
‘Half Street and Half Done’
courtesy of ‘spiggycat’

The financial crisis has been fairly brutal on the construction near the ballpark. Two lots slated for significant development have met with funding problems with the breakup of the Lehman Bros. group, who were set to finance the construction projects there of luxury housing with street-level retail and office spaces. Without financing packages, those buildings have been seriously delayed. Development blog extraordinaire JDLand predicts that this will be the Bullpen’s last season before Akridge starts to put up the 700,000 square foot project, but we’re looking at the end of the 2012 season at the earliest before that building is up, and opening day of 2013 is the very earliest you’ll see a more urban landscape around the Half Street entrance.

Hopping off the Metro for Sunday’s game, I was surprised to see an expanded presence of street vendors on Half Street, but it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. The day-of-game vendors slots are determined by lottery (here are April’s winners and a PDF map), and I saw plenty of cheap caps and crappy t-shirts, and a few hotdog carts.

What I’d love to see, though, is something like what D.C. United are doing with their streetscape before the game. This Saturday, Eat Wonky, DC Slices, BBQ Bandidos, Dang On Wheels and Sabora Street will bring their food trucks over to RFK before the game with all their tasty eats. It’d be great to see a few of the food trucks selling tasty cuban sandwiches, delicious merlindian food, and some cupcake trucks out there, to lure some of the younger crowd to the evening games.

While Yards Park has begun to flower, it’s a bit of a bummer that Friday night fireworks are off the calendar for this year so far, as that might have brought more people out to the area if they could watch from right next to the park.

Photo courtesy of
‘The Footbridge at Yards Park – Gorgeous Evening!’
courtesy of ‘Tony DeFilippo’

But the worst of the situation around the ballpark is the one that’s going to get better. Right now, there’s not much of anything to do after the game. You can go to the Bullpen and fling beanbags, sure, but there’s no place else to go, except the Metro. While the masses in Baltimore mill about near the Stadium or head for nearby Federal Hill, there’s no equivalent for Nats Fans. It’s going to get better, yes, but it’s not going to get better in time for this season or next. It’s not an easy job to be a Nats fan right now. Between Philly invasions, lackluster play, and nothing to do after the ballgame but nurse your wounds on crowded metro cars, well, I don’t know what to say.

Orioles fans do know how to have a good time at a ballgame, that much is for sure, and going to Camden Yards is always a treat. Nats Park can be that way, but we’re still looking at Opening Day 2013 before we’re presented with the same wealth of options. The good news? Strasburg will be in his second season off Tommy John surgery, back to full strength, Bryce Harper will be in his first full year of Major League play, a strong Cole Kimball and Derek Norris may find spots in Washington, and there might be a Phase 2-worthy team lead by a now-extended Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth.

Or, at least, that’s the plan.

I live and work in the District of Columbia. I write at We Love DC, a blog I helped start, I work at Technolutionary, a company I helped start, and I’m happy doing both. I enjoy watching baseball, cooking, and gardening. I grow a mean pepper, keep a clean scorebook, and wash the dishes when I’m done. Read Why I Love DC.

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10 thoughts on “Opening Day Disparities

  1. I get the impression that the developers around the ball park are shooting for more bistros, lounges, etc. But here’s the problem – those aren’t appropriate for shorts-clad and sunburned baseball fans leaving a game. Baseball fans want places exactly like what’s in the picture above – a sports pub where they can catch a break on beer prices after being gouged inside the park. Not a place where they’re just going to get gouged even more in an environment that isn’t comfortable. Make the environment more friendly towards smaller and cheaper estabishments, and the people will come. Try to turn it into a mini-Penn Quarter and see it sit there empty even longer.

  2. “The weather couldn’t have been different…”

    Huh? What games did you observe? Last Thursday was 41 and constant drizzle, nearly perfect weather for football. Yesterday was sunny and low 80′s, nearly perfect weather for baseball.

    I think that could easily account for 2,000 people staying home.

  3. You’re right Rich, I meant “couldn’t have been *more* different” and writing this at 12am last night hurt my reading comp. I’ve fixed it. The piece, though, has a lot to do with how different the crowds were, not just in size, but in activity.

  4. So, should have more owners joined Angelos in voting against DC baseball? Should we celebrate that he stunted the Nats fanbase’s growth by keeping them off of most cable systems for almost two whole seasons?

  5. Tom,

    I definitely won’t disagree with you about the overall lack of activity near Nats’ Park, and the economic downturn certainly negatively impacted the situation. Let’s hope it improves…

    But I don’t think judging that activity based on Opening Day turnout is fair, especially considering the weather. Also, consider if a certain injured starting pitcher was on the mound for the Nats.

  6. some bars and restaurants on barracks row have golf carts to take people to the game from their bar as well as pick them up after the game. I went to the saturday game and rode back to barracks row to watch the final four games.

  7. I think there is something to be said about American League play versus National League play as well. More power hitters are in the American League and there are more die-hard fans’ teams in the American League (Red Sox, Yankees, Orioles, A’s, etc.). I also don’t think it is the atmosphere outside that has much to do with the attendance (well, maybe a little).

    I think it is a combination of the nature of the town and the team. The town, the age range that weekday games cater to (the 20-something set) is a transient one. Many are working up the political ladder here from elsewhere or working for a nonprofit or association. As a result, there isn’t much investment in the town’s team. Also, the record needs to improve before fair-weather fans are converted to die-hard fans. That hasn’t happened since the team moved here from Montreal.

    I’ll agree with you that the entertainment value, both inside and outside the park is lacking for fans. For some it may be what is inside the park (the team) that is lacking and for others like you, Brother Bridge, it is what is outside to draw you to the stadium in the first place.

    However, I will take a day at the ballpark over a kick in the face with a golf shoe. If others don’t see that they have America’s pass time right in front of them at discount prices, that’s their fault. I, for one, do intend to take advantage of attending whenever I can. It’s about the game and not about the amenities with me.

  8. I’m a Baltimore fan, but I happened to see the video from the Nationals player introductions.

    It was so clearly a rip-off of what the Orioles do, only done very poorly. The Nats red carpet was tiny. The fog was bizarre, out of place, and the players didn’t look like they cared for it.

    If you’re going to do something like that, you should do it right. The way they did it just looked sad and pathetic.

    They could have just had the players run out from the dugout, and that would have been fine. But so clearly copying the Orioles, but falling so short, was not good.

  9. Also…

    I haven’t been to Nationals Park, but I’ve been to the Phillies new park, and they are in the same situation with absolutely nothing surrounding park. There’s a parking lot, and nothing else as far as I could see.

    The attendance problem: maybe it’s just the same issues that led to two incarnations of the Senators leaving town.

  10. With the potential for thousands of fans spending money before a game and the same fans pouring out of the park ready to spend more money afterwards, one would think that it would be a golden opportunity for small, inexpensive bars and informal restaurants to set up shop between the park and the metro. My guess is that some urban planner decided that “revitalization” means that you build a 10-story office ghetto around the park, and make the rents so high that only high-end restaurants and bars featuring that abomination known as “table service” can afford the rent. If so, expect potential fans like me to head straight for the metro and back to the ‘burbs.

    Also, of course, you have to build a fan base pretty much from scratch, but the Lerner’s knew that going in, and they’ve done a lousy job of it so far. While we can’t all sit around and wait for Strasburg and Harper to show up, it would help if Jayson Werth remembered how to catch a pop-up.