It was October 5, 2019, a sunny Saturday afternoon in historic downtown Fredericksburg, when the former Potomac Nationals made public their puzzling decision to cling to their past.
“Steve, you’re not gonna believe this!” My brother Joe didn’t even say “hello” when I picked up his FaceTime call. I was in Texas. He had just attended the block party to unveil our hometown’s new baseball identity.
“They’re the Fredericksburg Nationals.”
On its own, the name doesn’t sound bad. And by itself, the new FredNats Ballpark is among the best in all of Low-A baseball.
But given Fredericksburg’s history, that the team relocated from a congested outgrowth of Washington, D.C. to the single part of an otherwise-quaint city that most resembles a congested urban outgrowth and retained its name, FredNats Ballpark is a monolithic reminder of the team’s yearning for its parent club, a desperate need to remind the world of its reason for relevance rather than striving for an independent identity altogether. And, ironically, by clinging to its past, the baseball team embraced the future of its new city.
I will say, my grievance with the Fredericksburg Nationals is fostered from my intimate familiarity with the city and lofty expectations for baseball’s arrival. My disappointment with some of the team’s decisions notwithstanding, FredNats Ballpark is an excellent venue for watching Minor League Baseball to which I hope to return many times over.
While it would have been nice for the ballpark to have been incorporated into the historic side of the city, I imagine there were few plots of land available in Fredericksburg, and the site in Celebrate Virginia was ostensibly the best. Located just west of I-95, FredNats Ballpark is easy to find.
Take exit 130B to head west from I-95 and weave through Central Park (sadly, a monstrous shopping center in Fredericksburg and in no way akin to an urban green space). From U.S. 1, it’s probably quickest to drive up Fall Hill Ave. and bypass the Central Park traffic.
Parking at the stadium is $5, and, along with everything else in the ballpark, completely cashless. The FredNats have no qualms packing a park, but they still fear COVID-laced $5 bills.
Where to Sit
Here’s a FredNats Ballpark seating chart for your reference
Perhaps the best quality that any minor league stadium can offer is a variety of seating options that divert from the usual box-reserved infield sections. The FredNats delivered here.
Most affordably, the last section down each line is a Terrace Box, consisting of tables or high top drink rails, each with four chairs. The Terrace Boxes are beyond the netting, allowing for an unfiltered, relaxed view of the game with a comfortable space for eating.
On the infield, the traditional seating is grouped in Field, Dugout, and Diamond levels from least to most expensive.
Where is the shade? There simply isn’t any covering over the seats. None. At all. The sun sets behind third base, so that side gets shadier earlier at night. Because of the lack of shade, actually, the team is moving their Sunday games to nightcaps starting in mid-July. Every other game is already scheduled for the evening.
The indoor club section is accessible with Club or Suite tickets, which at the time of this writing in 2021 are sold out to season ticket holders. But, should you get your hands on them, offer an upscale minor league treatment.
Inside the club level, team owner Art Silber has a wall of autographed baseballs on display from his personal collection.
My brother Charlie made the observation that the furniture inside the club gives off “new college dorm vibes,” a sentiment that anyone who has seen a college campus strive for a chic, modern look can surely understand. It’s a simple critique, but one that speaks to undertones of corner-cutting and pompous projection that manifest elsewhere around the park.
In the outfield, a few group sections offer unique opportunities.
The Field Suite behind the left field wall offers field-level views of the action (in a similar position to Miami’s Clevelander) and an opportunity to hit in the batting cage after the team has concluded its pregame usage of it.
In right field, The Scoreboard Suite allows fans the opportunity (or free labor, however you want to put it) to update a hand-operated scoreboard throughout the game.
Also in right field, the Bullpen Party Decks provide a view into the visitor’s bullpen.
Perhaps the best overall feature of the park is its wraparound concourse, rarely seen in Minor League Baseball. That is, you can walk entirely around the field on the concourse.
Behind the center field batter’s eye is a timeline of the history of baseball in Fredericksburg, including teams I had no idea ever existed in the city.
What to Eat
Rivaling my disappointment in the team’s nickname is the beigeness of the park’s culinary offerings. Four full-size concession stands wrap the infield concourse, one of which is boldly-named Caroline St. Grill, after the city’s main street, and features nothing unique to the area (or any area aside from stadium interiors). The only novel offering at any of these is an assortment of differently-topped hot dogs on the first base side. Elsewhere, we’re talking hamburgers, chicken tenders, nachos, and popcorn.
Additionally, pricing is overtly inflated, perhaps even exceeding major league prices. An ice cream helmet here costs $8. At the real Nationals Park in D.C., and most places around MiLB, it’s just $5.
Down the third base line, a cart called Burgertopia serves up double-stacked hamburgers with a few limited toppings for $12. Calorie-wise, it’s a better offer than most in the park.
But as I stood in line the first time at Burgertopia, the card reader broke, ironically leaving the cashless stand with cooking patties and no way to make money from them.
A few innings later, I returned and actually paid for a burger this time, but waited 10 minutes to actually receive it. In that time, smoke from grill filled the night sky and drifted all the way across the field to the right field foul pole. It was the kind of smoke I’d only ever seen in a baseball stadium after they had shot off fireworks to conclude the evening, never from simply cooking food on a grill.
As I looked up at the smoke, I noticed each stadium light stanchion was streaked with a small blue light at its base. It only extended a few feet up the pole, and served no real purpose. I can only imagine the team was looking for an elegant night-lit aesthetic and went so far as to install the superfluous lights but not so far as to make them grand enough to give the stadium a distinctive element.
If you like craft beer, 6 Bears & a Goat Brewing Company (Stafford, Va.) serves up brews throughout the park.
Sense of Place
In an ideal scenario, FredNats Ballpark would have been incorporated to Fredericksburg’s historic downtown. But given the lack of city land available on that side of I-95, it was never going to happen.t
The real shame of the park’s placement, then, is that it wasn’t built with any semblance of a riverfront. Instead of being placed next to Celebrate Virginia Live along the river, it’s sandwiched between the concert venue and the highway, missing an iconic placement by just yards.
Being so close to a river without actually building up to it gives the FredNats one more point of contact with their parent club. Although the Washington Nationals were lucky enough to have their neighborhood transformed recently to better integrate the waterfront.
As far as branding goes, the team made intelligent decisions after their single terrible one. Though they sorely missed an opportunity to call themselves the Cherry Choppers–an ode to George Washington’s fabled axe angst that would have occurred just across the river in Ferry Farm–they did run with that idea for an alternate logo featuring a caricature of the president swinging an axe. And for that, I give them credit.
Inside the stadium, the FredNats’ cityscape logo is prominent. The logo features downtown’s railroad bridge and green steeples in a clean, unmistakably local tribute and overall excellent logo.
But the F’Nats name is just the pudding-laden proof of what the stadium tells me architecturally.
Massively generalized, there are two Virginias. One is the picturesque land of rolling hills and rocky rivers that glide past colonial downtowns and verdant pastures of grazing horses. The other is D.C.’s suburban sprawl that has been encroaching on the rest in an uphill flow emanating from that magnetic basin.
While the former home of the Potomac Nationals, Woodbridge, has long been awash in the thick sprawl, Fredericksburg still remains on the cultural edge, straddling those pastures with an ever-homogenizing northern Virginia along I-95.
Now, the F’Nats do have the next-best thing to an old town, brick-laden ballpark–a sparkling, modern park divorced entirely from the retro concept. With a fresh stone and concrete exterior giving way to a sleek blue interior, the F’Nats lept unabashedly into the 21st century. With its open concourse, outfield clubs, and enclosed bullpens, it is a state-of-the-art ballpark only scaled-down to meet the Single-A market.
In that way, the ballpark does reflect its city, or at least the part of it that exists as an outgrowth of northern Virginia–a region sprawling with the kind of gridlock traffic and chic town centers that speak of a yearning for the bigger city not far away. The stadium is sparkling, and a massive improvement on the old Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge. Yet, its placement and construction further indicates Fredericksburg’s soon swallowing by northern Virginia’s cultural ubiquity.
It’s unfortunate, but to construct a ballpark, and identify a team with what lies to its north, the Fredericksburg Nationals had to somewhat turn a cold shoulder to their old city’s identity, richer, and full of 18th century buildings, wartime bullet holes, and, yes, perhaps a downed cherry tree.