- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sure, the cherry blossoms behind the left-field fence will be nice. So will the wide concourses, the huge scoreboard and the view of the Capitol dome (from certain seats).

But those are merely the cosmetic advantages of Nationals Park. The hard-core baseball fan wants to know something else about the new home of the Washington Nationals: How will it play?

Will it be a home run haven, a park where broken-bat fly balls to the outfield soar over the fence? Or will it be a pitcher’s paradise, a stadium where even well-hit balls to the gaps fall short of the warning track?

The definitive answer from the Nationals? They have no idea.

“You can have theories all you want,” general manager Jim Bowden said. “I went through the new ballpark situation in Cincinnati where everybody had a theory. And there wasn’t one person that said a little fly ball in shallow right-center was gone, and every fly ball in left and right down the line were gone. You couldn’t calculate that. They did all the wind studies. They were all wrong. Every single one was wrong.”

Indeed, no one with the Reds had an inkling Great American Ball Park would rank among the easiest stadiums in which to hit a home run when it opened in 2003. So the Nationals will have to wait until they’ve actually played some games in their new park before they can draw any solid conclusions.

This much, however, is certain: Nationals Park will be a whole lot more friendly to hitters than RFK Stadium.

ESPN.com has developed a statistic called “Park Factor,” a convoluted formula that allows different ballparks to be compared with others. RFK’s home run park factor in 2007 was .676, the lowest for any major-league stadium since Atlanta’s Turner Field in 2003.

Washington’s players don’t need fancy stats to know cavernous RFK was the place home runs went to die.

“We were playing at a state park last year,” first baseman Dmitri Young said.

RFK’s listed outfield dimensions — 335 feet down the lines, 380 feet to the gaps, 410 feet to center field — were big enough, but even those weren’t accurate. Close watchers believe the distances to the power alleys actually were more than 390 feet.

So by that measure alone, Nationals Park will be a significant upgrade. The new stadium’s asymmetrical dimensions — 336 feet to left field, 377 feet to left-center, 402 feet to center, 370 feet to right-center and 335 feet to right field — are more in line with most major-league ballparks.

Washington’s power hitters will be frothing at the mouth to hit at their new home after suffering the last three years at RFK.

“For some guys, maybe it’s a mental thing,” said outfielder Austin Kearns, who hit .228 at home last season but .301 on the road. “Maybe it gives you a little bit more comfort knowing that it’s a little bit smaller. It’s just different. I think mentally for most people it’ll be a little different.”

There is another side to the story, though, because there will be at least 13 men in Nationals uniforms who will miss RFK: the club’s 12 pitchers and pitching coach Randy St. Claire.

Washington’s staff had grown accustomed to RFK’s spacious outfield and ample foul territory. Pitchers weren’t afraid to go after hitters, knowing a fly ball wasn’t as dangerous there as it was in other cities.

Now, they face the new challenge of learning how to pitch in a much smaller venue.

“I just hope that our pitchers make the adjustment right away and it doesn’t become a mental thing,” manager Manny Acta said. “Because what goes around comes around. Our hitters complain [at RFK], but then our pitchers got the benefit of the doubt. I hope they adjust to it.”

Of course, there’s still no way to tell precisely how much difference there will be at Nationals Park.

The team has commissioned wind studies, some of which suggest the southwesterly breeze that usually can be found during summers in the District could help push balls out over the right-center field wall.

Then again, Bowden is keenly aware that the new ballpark’s surroundings could play a key role in wind direction and velocity.

Currently, there are few completed buildings along Half Street behind the ballpark’s left-field fence. But several restaurants, shops and residences will be constructed along that walkway over the next few years, and that could have a significant effect.

“I think it’s changing,” Bowden said. “Every day a building is built around that ballpark. I think it affects it.”

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