The Cardinals are set to visit Nats Park this week for a four game series. As a Cardinal fan residing in the DC area, this is my easiest chance in any given year to see them play in person. Since I’m married to a diehard Nationals fan, I attend 10 to 15 Nats games each year including the Cardinal games. That makes me uniquely qualified to share 2,000 words worth of helpful tips for you if you’re visiting Nats Park this week or in the future for a Cardinals game.
Getting to the Ballpark
You will have a few options for traveling to Nats Park. The first option is to sell a kidney so you can afford to pay for a parking spot near the ballpark, which can run you anywhere from $20 to $50 for regular season games. Your second option is to pile into a death tube with hundreds of other people, many of whom will inadvertently touch your special areas, as you hurtle through the city. This is known as the DC Metro. Bonus points if it’s not on fire when you ride, though that may not keep you from witnessing the depths of the hellscape. Also, the last train leaves the ballpark at 11:30 pm, which I’ll address later. I’ve found the bus to be reliable- I take it to work every day- although I’ve never taken it to the stadium. I imagine it will be packed, and much slower than the train, but more reliable regarding delays. Or you could walk, take a Lyft, use Car 2 Go, rent a bike through Capital Bikeshare, or take a scooter.
Where to Sit
Most seats in the ballpark are good, with some caveats. If it’s hot, avoid the first base side. Seats in the center field bleachers are problematic because they provide limited views on flyballs to center field and right field. Moreover, you’re liable to sit near the least interested fans in the ballpark who likely chose that area because of its proximity to the Budweiser Terrace.
The all-inclusive area behind home plate (sections 206-221) is shockingly affordable and provides a great padded seat and a good view. It also has an air conditioned area where you can buy sushi and fancy carved meats or sit at a full bar. The upper deck area is a solid value (sections 223-236, anything in the 300s and 400s). You’re farther away from the action, but the tickets are appropriately cheaper and they don’t skimp on concessions and beer options up there. There’s a certain appeal to sections 201 through 205 where the true diehards sit, although the concessions options are limited in that section of the ballpark. If you’re looking to sit with other Cardinal fans, you’ll find the biggest group down the third base line in the lower bowl (approximately 108-115). Last but not least, in the 100 level, there are some great values to be found down the baseline close to the foul pole in foul territory, particularly in right field.
Food and Drink
Concessions are where Nats Park shines. It’s not because the food or beverage quality is particularly amazing, though it’s certainly fine. No, what makes the food and beverage choices at Nats Park so great is the sheer variety of options. They know the market is riddled with folks who’d rather be saving up for a quail egg, charred broccolini, and bottomless mimosa brunch in their salmon shorts and boat shoes than watching a baseball game, so the ballpark has to eliminate as many objections to going to the game as possible.
Here is a list of actual things you can get at Nats Park: oysters (both as a po’boy or raw), a bánh mi hot dog, fish and chips, crab cakes and crab grilled cheese sandwiches, Salvadoran pupusas, Chinese-Korean fusion hoagies (with kimchi-ze whiz), lamb sloppy joes, steamed bao buns, Shake Shack, frites, and gelato. That’s in addition to traditional ballpark fare like hot dogs, nachos, popcorn, sausages, and even a soft pretzel shaped like the curly W Walgreens logo. Shake Shack and Box Frites are good but the lines are insanely long. If you want to go, get there early or be prepared to miss a few innings. They’re located close to the Budweiser Terrace on level two.
If you want local flavor, Ben’s Chili Bowl is tough to beat. Ben’s is weaved into the fabric of the city. They sell half-smokes topped with chili made from a recipe that predates the Kennedy administration. A half-smoke is sort of halfway between a hot dog and a sausage, with just a tiny bit of spiciness to it. I am a fan.
If you’re vegetarian, several of the Nats Dogs stands sell veggie dogs and the pupusa place has both bean and cheese options that are very good. There is also a veggie burger, slices of cheese pizza, and a Field of Greens stand (lower level, right field area of the concourse) offering vegetarian fare. Also, beer is vegetarian. Speaking of which...
There’s a strong variety of beer, including everything the InBev Monster sells (Goose Island, Blue Point, Bud and Bud Light, and Virginia’s Devil’s Backbone most of all). If you’re a craft beer dork like me and my wonderful wife, you’ll want to seek out the District Draft stands. There are lots of them all over the ballpark. For local beers, I’m a big fan of Port City, Atlas, and Mad Fox. I am not enamored with DC Brau, 3 Stars, or Right Proper (the locals will tell you Right Proper is amazing), but your mileage may vary. For my money, Port City’s Optimal Wit is a tasty, easy drinking beer made with love, kind of the equivalent of the Schlafly Pale in that way (even if the style is different). If you’re more of a liquor person, there are quite a few full bars, many that sell products from DC’s apparently big distillery scene. You’ll also find a Jack Daniels stand.
The Taste of the Majors stand sells themed hot dogs based on N.L. East rivals, and will occasionally have a dog based on the opponent. The St. Louis-themed dog has marinara and is topped with “toasted ravioli.” I use the quotes because it’s a mozzarella stick that they’ve flattened into a square, and thrown on top of a hot dog. It doesn’t have provel nor would I want it (blasphemy!), but I would be completely in favor of a dog on a gooey buttercake bun.
One thing you’ll quickly notice is that a lot of fans show up late and leave early. In fairness, some of this is justifiable. If you travel to the game via the Metro, the last train leaves the ballpark around 11:30 pm. If the game runs late, you’re liable to be stranded in need of alternative transportation back home. Folks combat this by leaving in the 6th inning if the game is out of hand. And by “out of hand”, I mean “someone is ahead by two runs.” I can’t justify why so many fans show up in the 2nd and 3rd inning, but I’m sure the diehards are just as annoyed as I am by it.
DC sports fans believe they are cursed. The Caps winning the Stanley Cup last year helped undo a little bit of that attitude. However, the city’s professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey teams collectively went 26 years without a championship from 1992 until 2018, an era sprinkled liberally with post-season disappointment (see Kozma, Pete). If you visit in October, you’ll witness the most passionate fans at their absolute loudest, but you’ll also palpably feel prior city sports failures hanging over the ballpark like an acrid fart that nobody wants to acknowledge.
You will absolutely see a lot of Bryce Harper angst around the ballpark, with butchered Nats/Harper jerseys modified to label him a villain, much like you saw with Albert Pujols when he left St. Louis. Recently, a lot of national sports personalities needled Nats fans for booing Bryce Harper on his return and I feel obligated to defend them. Had Bryce Harper signed with approximately 25 other teams, he would have received a thunderous ovation on his return. Even if he had signed with the Orioles, Braves, or Mets- teams Nats fans consider a rival to varying degrees- I believe the reception would have been mostly positive (less so for the Mets). However, there’s a history between Nats and Phillies fans. And with a geographic rival in all four major professional sports, Nats fans are not fond of Philly teams to begin with. I don’t begrudge Harper for going to the Phillies. But I at least understand why this is the one place he could sign that would annoy Nats fans.
There was a lot of residual Kozma game ire towards Cardinal fans when I first moved here in 2015, though it has softened in recent years. In general, there’s a lot of resentment when fans of teams with large national followings take over their ballpark, which happens with some regularity. I’ve seen fans of the Yankees, Cardinals, Cubs, Phillies, and (to a lesser degree) the Mets, Dodgers, and Giants overrun the stadium. When fans of other teams cheer loudly or start chants for their own teams (“Let’s Go Cardinals! *clap clap clap-clap-clap*”), a lot of Nats fans will respond by booing... the other team’s fans. It’s kind of like watching a weird animal on a nature documentary using its lone defense mechanism.
When the Nats score, a portion of the stadium will chant “N! A! T! S! Nats Nats Nats! WHOOOO!” one time for each run scored, which they absolutely 100% did not steal from the New York Jets. Nope. Not at all. Like most things in DC, it’s completely original and not derivative of somewhere else.
Some fans call Matt Adams “Big City” instead of Big Mayo, which makes me sad. Although my wife and I have done our part to spread the Mayo. I’m 99% certain the discussion of it here began with a conversation we had in the stands last year.
The Ballpark Experience
Regarding ballpark ambience, it’s not one of the retro boom ballparks. If you’re looking for seats painted ballpark green and a bunch of brick, you’ll have to drive 40 minutes to Camden Yards to get it. Since the team has only been in DC since 2005, and the city went without a franchise from 1972 to 2004, you’re also understandably not going to find a lot of history. That said, they do the best they can with what they have, with little nods to Walter Johnson, Frank Howard, and previous incarnations of baseball in DC. That includes the Homestead Grays. You’ll also see a lot of fans wearing Expos gear, including yours truly when the Cardinals aren’t in town.
There is ample fun on-field entertainment, including the racing presidents. In a typical year, the Nats boast six mascots- Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Screech (an eagle who may or may not actually be Dustin Diamond in a bird suit), and Ryan Zimmerman. In recent years, they also featured Herbert Hoover, William Taft, and either Calvin Coolidge or Paulie Walnuts. Teddy is the most popular, and there’s a whole subculture wrapped around Teddy losing the race.
Development around the ballpark has exploded in recent years, with a few restaurants and bars popping up in the area. It’s hardly Wrigleyville (not many ballparks have anything like that), but there are at least some things to do. Additionally, there’s a large outdoor bar area called The Bullpen on the walk from the Metro to the ballpark, sort of the Nats Park equivalent of Paddy O’s.
If you do end up going to Nats Park, enjoy your visit. Hopefully these tips will help prepare you for an easier and fun experience. Let’s go Cards!