Here’s part 2 of “Countdown to the NHL Winter Classic”, which focuses on the Winter Classic venue, Nationals Park.
When the Expos moved from Montreal to Washington in 2004, the only existing venue to call the Nationals home was RFK Stadium. The multipurpose stadium opened in October 1961 as the home of both the Redskins and the second incarnation of the Senators. In its baseball configuration, RFK was notorious for being a “launch pad” hitter’s park. During the Senators days, power-hitter Frank Howard would usually crush balls into the upper deck. By the time the Nationals called RFK home in 2005, the stadium was 45 years old and considered outdated by MLB standards. The decision on where to build the Nationals’ new ballpark was in the hands of then-mayor Anthony Williams. The new ballpark would be located in the Navy Yard neighborhood near the banks of the Anacostia River. Nationals Park took two years and over $611 Million to make.
Nationals Park opened on March 22, 2008 with a college baseball game between George Washington and St. Joseph’s. The first Nationals regular season game occurred on March 30, 2008, when the Nats took on division rival, the Atlanta Braves in a nationally-televised Sunday Night game. The Nats won 3-2 on a walk-off home run by Ryan Zimmerman.
Nationals Park was built with an unobstructed view of the Capitol, and the National Mall in mind. The ballpark was built using steel, glass and pre-cast concrete that reflects the architecture of Washington. The main point-of-entry at the park is out in center field near N Street Southeast. The entrance is flanked by cherry blossom trees. On a clear day from the upper deck, the Capitol, the National Mall, and maybe even the Washington National Cathedral. The ballpark was also built to be environmentally friendly. Nationals Park become the first major stadium in the United States to be accredited as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED Structure. In fact, the ballpark’s design and construction exceeded the target of a “certified” Green Building, and actually received the United States Green Building Council’s even more environmentally-friendly “Silver Status”. Even though the playing surface is 24 feet below street level, everyone who enters the park enters at street level, because the main concourse is built at the same level as the sidewalks.
Out in centerfield, there are three statues dedicated to some of the players who have molded the history of baseball in Washington. Walter “Big Train” Johnson played 21 seasons with the original Washington Senators (1907-1927). With his sidearm release and one-pitch arsenal (he only threw a four-seam fastball), Johnson won 417 games, threw 110 shutouts (which is still a Major League record), and led the Senators to their only World Series championship in 1924. He became a charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame when he was inducted in 1936. Josh Gibson is one of the greatest hitters in the history of the Negro League. Playing for the Homestead Grays, he led the team to eight Negro League championships in a nine-year span from 1937-1945. In his 17-year playing career, he hit nearly 500 home runs, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. Frank Howard played for the second incarnation of the Washington Senators from 1965 until the team moved to Texas in 1972. “Hondo” was one of the most imposing players to ever grace a baseball diamond. Standing at 6′ 8″ and weighing in at 275 pounds, Howard was a two-sport athlete at Ohio State, playing both baseball and basketball. After being drafted by the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors, Howard decided to switch his focus towards baseball, signing as a free agent with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958. He went on to win NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1960 and then went on to win a World Series Championship in 1963. In December 1965, Howard was traded to Washington as part of a seven-player deal. It was his time in Washington where he would become a baseball legend. Switching from right field to left field, he went on to hit a franchise-record 237 home runs in his seven years in Washington, also earning other nicknames such as “The Washington Monument” and “The Capital Punisher.”