Thoughts on a Roof at Nationals Park

Nats Park Roof Photoshop
Photoshop credit: @dcsportshopped

I can’t stop thinking about the roof.

News leaked last week that in July of this year, Nationals owner Ted Lerner approached the D.C. City Government to ask them to fund a $300 million retractable roof for Nationals Park.

A roof on Nats Park is as impractical as it is unlikely.  First, the city of Washington D.C. spent over $600 to fully fund a new stadium for the Nationals not that long ago (the park opened in 2008).  Frankly, I’m shocked the team had the temerity to ask, particularly when the city is in the process of funding two other sports-entertainment ventures: a renovation of the Verizon Center and a soccer-only facility for D.C. United.  On top of that, I doubt you could find a room of people in the entire DC Area that believes Nationals Park needs a roof.  Seattle needs a roof.  Miami needs a roof.  The Nationals had only four rain-outs last season.  Besides, since the stadium wasn’t designed for a retractable roof, any addition would be aesthetically awkward if not an architectural monstrosity.

For these reasons, most Nationals fans rolled their eyes and moved onto the next story, which promptly arrived when the Nats snatched Doug Fister from the Detroit Tigers.

But I can’t stop thinking about the roof.

Why do the Lerners want a roof on Nationals Park?  My most reasonable guess is that they want to turn the stadium into a 365-day entertainment venue.  The team has been aggressive courting concerts and other events (such as Paul McCartney), but Washington D.C.’s winter weather means the venue will mostly sit empty from November-March.  Since baseball season runs from April-October, there are only a few days on the calendar capable of hosting a non-baseball event at the stadium.  Maybe the Lerners view event rentals as an untapped gold mine.

The other possibility is that Lerners believe a roof is necessary for the baseball season.  Washington D.C. is not a climate like Miami and Seattle, where frequent rain-outs mandate a roof.  But Washington D.C. has a wickedly humid summer.  Sometimes the weather is unbearable in July and August—two of the biggest revenue generating months for a team since kids are out of school.  Arizona and Houston are two teams that have a roof simply because of the summer heat.

The entire episode underscores the fact that Nationals Park—and by extension the Nationals franchise—hasn’t found its identity yet.  The identity of the Chicago Cubs is deeply intertwined with Wrigley Field, a fact demonstrated by the contentious negotiations over the park’s planned renovations.  A baseball stadium is truly a home, for the fans and the team.  The fact that the Lerners would propose such a radical overhaul barely six years into the park’s tenure speaks volumes about the ownership and the stadium they were gifted by the city.

We all had high hopes for Nationals Park.  Major League Baseball and the city chose a prime spot for the stadium, right on the water merely blocks from the Capitol.  Yet various geographical and architectural considerations left most fans with a view of neither.  Most stadiums are defined by the view beyond their outfield walls—the Warehouse in Baltimore, the Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh.  Nationals fans have a view of parking garages.  Nationals Park has all the modern conveniences of a new ballpark, but it’s still lacking an aesthetic identity.

The biggest ballpark news this offseason was the Braves’ decision to abandon Turner Field in Atlanta for a new stadium in Cobb County, Georgia.  This news was shocking simply because Turner Field is barely 16 years old.  There are active major league players who began their careers before the stadium even existed.

New stadiums can go in two directions.  They can become instant classics, like Camden Yards and PNC Park, where today’s fans can’t even imagine their home park ever being replaced.  New stadiums can also fail to capture people’s imaginations, like Turner Field and the Washington Redskins’ FedEx Field right up the road, where fans and ownership alike count the days until the time is ripe to replace it.

Six years old and a major facelift already on the table, it’s becoming more obvious which direction Nationals Park is headed.

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