Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Washington Social Diary

Hand-painting decorative elements on the tops of the dugouts at the sparkling new Washington Nationals Stadium, ten days before opening night.
A New Ballpark Pitches Washington What It Needs
By Carol Joynt

Washington is deeply in need of a diversion. The Iraq war just marked a 5th anniversary with no end in sight. Though the three presidential candidates represent Arizona, Illinois and New York, the fact is John McCain, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton are U.S. Senators in their day jobs.

They, their staffs and the people who cover their campaigns, are largely based here. All of them have slogged along on the campaign trail for months, and for the Democrats in particular, it’s a daily 12 rounds.
The logo carpeting in the locker room of the Washington Nationals Stadium.
Politics may be a passion, but passions can take a toll. That other Washington based firm, The Federal Reserve Bank, is a virtual hyper-coaster. Capitol Hill is a dome-shaped national mood ring. For the Democrats up for re-election, a divided party is a threat to job security, and pocketbook issues can be fatal for either side of the aisle. Congress may be on recess these two weeks, and the school kids on Spring Break, but as with much of the nation, these are tense and troubling days in the capital.

Which means there couldn’t be a better time for the opening of a new ballpark. Ted Lerner and his family bought the Washington Nationals (nee Montreal Expos) two years ago. The team’s been here playing ball at the old and rotting RFK Stadium since 2005. But with the opening this Sunday night, of the sparkling new Nationals Park it feels like, as the song says, “starting here, starting now.”
Apart from what the Lerner family paid for their seats by buying the team, these front row "Presidential" seats are the stadium's most expensive. The come padded, with a lot of leg room and a priceless view. Coming opening day, "Diamond" seat season ticket holders can walk up only a few rows to enjoy the privileges of the exclusive Diamond Club deck and restaurant for food and beverages.
No tractor mowers here; the immaculate Kentucky grass is carefully hand mowed the old-fashioned way. The virgin pitcher's mound gets special attention.
The real sweet spot is that while the trend among modern stadiums is to open outside city limits where the land is cheap, Nationals Park is just the opposite – it couldn’t be more urban, more downtown, more sincerely about the city itself. In fact, it’s almost walking distance from The Capitol.

And you can be sure, on opening night, when the Nats meet the Atlanta Braves, everyone who is anyone here – from politics, business, media, and the high roller and social elite – will plant themselves in one of the stadium’s bright blue seats. (Preferably, of course, the best ones.) President Bush plans to toss out the first ball.
The view from the front row Presidential seats.
Here are some of the nuts and bolts: When Major League Baseball approved the transfer of the Expos to Washington it was the first such comprehensive transfer in years and was seen as inevitable; it’s good for MLB to have a team in the capital.

Competition was fierce for ownership rights. It took Commissioner Bud Selig 17 months to decide to award the team to Lerner, a developer and builder and city native, and a group that included many family members. The price? A cool $450 million. Selig liked the “family model,” and also that the Lerner group included the respected Stan Kasten, who would become team president.
Everywhere, there is work to be done: Putting the last screws in the railings; Putting in cup holders for the very front row seats.
Rather than up a tunnel or behind walls, the stadium concourse is open and expansive. Fans can buy food without missing the action; Food concessions — almost ready for opening day.
The city, after occasionally contentious disputes, agreed to build the stadium for $611 million. The Lerners invested another $30 million of their own, too, which went toward parking garages, for example, and installing bathrooms in all the dozens of private suites. No doubt, they could see other tabs down the road.

Nobody’s complaining about the costs right now, though upper management admits it would have preferred not to throw open the stadium gates in a recession. Anyway, we’re talking distractions, not hassles. And the handsome distraction is a 41,222-seat arena made from pre-cast concrete, steel and glass to reflect the tenor of Washington’s monuments.
The bar in the Diamond Club, commemorating a meaningful Washington win over New York.
The architects, Helmuth Obata and Kassabaum (veterans of more than 50 MLB and NFL stadiums) and Devrouax & Purnell (a local firm) were inspired by I.M. Pei’s pink marble East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. It also claims to be one of the nation’s first environmentally “green” stadiums, apart from the real green, the 100,000 square feet of Kentucky Bluegrass Sod from New Jersey’s Tuckahoe Turf Farm. The design is refreshingly open.

There aren’t tunnels and walls separating the concourse from the field. At that level fans can line up for food and still keep an eye on the action. As baseball stadiums go, it’s sweeping rather than cavernous and it could be the hype about “no bad seats” may be true.
Clockwise from top left: The name explains it; What the Nats players will experience behind the scenes. A view of the lockers. Note the Louisville Slugger bats incorporated into the locker design; The Nationals pitchers' bullpen adjacent to the locker room; What the player's see as they walk from the locker room into the bright light of the stadium.
In the Nats dug-out. Where a cell-phone won't do.
Because the Lerners want it that way, Stan Kasten is the ownership’s public face. What a great choice, too. He may fess up to perceptions of arrogance, but arrogance (a trace, not a load) is a positive in the Washington skill set. What’s important is Kasten knows who he is, has real world business and sports credibility, and is politically sharp enough to play both the on-field and off-field games.

Taking advantage of local proximity, he’s learned to woo ambassadors as a means to recruit players from their countries. He knows that while the game is American, building a team is global. When a group of United States Senators inquired about season tickets, he got their credit cards.
The regular seats are ready to be filled with fans. Home plate, while still a work in progress a week before opening day, is where legendary home runs and strike outs will happen.
The W logo is emblazoned on one of the world's largest HD TV screens. Washington Nationals sales chief Chris Gargani shows off the suite seats to a group working on New York's planned Barclays Center.
And if there’s any doubt he can handle the city’s outsized egos, he spent almost three decades in Atlanta with Ted Turner, as president of the baseball Braves, the basketball Hawks and the hockey Thrashers. Surely, one at a time? Nah. He did all three jobs at the same time AND maintained a good relationship with the colorful and volatile Turner. That’s why some say he could one day succeed Selig in the commissioner’s chair.

You catch Stan Kasten in moments of repose these weeks, though, and you see the wheels turning, and glimpse, too, the anxiety that is understandable in anyone who’s both building a team and a stadium. He says it’s the most exciting time of his life, but recognizes at end of the day the team has to win, the elevators have to work, the tickets have to match the seats and the food has to be popular with fans.
The new Washington Nationals Stadium, ten days before opening night.
On that score, it may be a home run. There are loads of food concessions at Nationals Park, and notably include a dozen authentic local favorites.

At the top of that list is Ben’s Chili Bowl, a beloved diner that was opened by the Ali family in 1958, survived the riots a decade later, and went on to thrive in the service of dishing up insanely good chili dogs, half smokes, milk shakes and fries into the wee hours. The walls are covered with photos of the famous and notorious, the jukebox is old school and stocks great music.
Ben's Chili Bowl is a beloved Washington eatery.
The Nats are so proud of the Ben’s connection that last Friday Mayor Adrian Fenty and Kasten, plus Lerner family members and local politicians, showed up at Ben’s to step up the buzz about opening day.

There were speeches, pats on the back, smiles and media to record it all. Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler said he couldn’t wait for the formal event to end to get his hands on a banana shake. What’s a few fat grams in the quest for joy?
Ben's menu. The chili dog with everything is worthy of a Michelin ranking.
I departed Ben’s and drove the ten minutes to Nationals Park to check it out and to take some photos. It was me and teams of busy workers, who ignored my camera or smiled as I wandered through the rows of empty seats, into the suites, the restaurants, the bowels of the arena and even – carefully – down to the field, where the smell of fresh cut grass conjured the crack of a bat and the crowd’s roar.

I predict that Sunday night this city will, indeed, be fully distracted. You can join the fun on ESPN at 8 p.m., Eastern. Play ball.
Clockwise from top left: The walls of Ben's Chili Bowl are crammed with photos and mementoes from decades in the Washington limelight. A letter from President Bill Clinton is a proud stand out for the owners; Nationals President Stan Kasten greets DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, with NBC News reporter Tom Sherwood in the background; Mayor Fenty greets Bob Tannenbaum, whose family own the Washington Nationals.
L. to r.: Even though his state has the Oriole's, Maryland attorney general Doug Gansler showed up at Ben's Chili Bowl to show bi-partisan support for the Nationals; Nats President Stan Kasten, team communications chief Chartese Burnett, Ben's owner Nizam Ali, and Black Entertainment Television executive Paxton Baker.
Delicious dogs and half smokes on the grill. Inside Ben's Chili Bowl.
The vintage juke box at Ben's; new and old school R&B for all hours and all ages. The sign on the way out the door at Ben's Chili Bowl.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.