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?
‘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.
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.