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April 19, 2005

New Wine, Old Bottle

The Nationals Arrive in D.C.

by Neil deMause

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"International flights now boarding at Gate 4..."

That was my friend David, catching his first glimpse of RFK Stadium before Sunday's epic tilt between the Washington Nationals and their arch-rival Arizona Diamondbacks. (Hey, when you've only played three home games in your history, it's any arch-rival in a storm.) It was the first home day game in D.C. since 1971, and all Washington was abuzz about the Nationals' unexpected place atop the N.L. East standings (not to mention about Vinny Castilla's .450 batting average--take your pick which one you think is most likely to last until May). David and I had made the pilgrimage down I-95 to check out the newly minted Nats and the new-old stadium that they'll call home for at least the next three years.

RFK Stadium was built in 1961 for the expansion Senators--the ones that became the Rangers, not the ones that became the Twins--and from the outside it really does look like an airport terminal: all poured concrete columns and sweeping curves of the sort that seemed modern back in the days when people still talked about the "space age." It sits in the middle of a vast parking lot a mile or so east of the Capitol, a National Guard armory and a handful of row houses its only neighbors.

Nobody goes to a ballgame to look at the outside of a stadium, though--certain reporters' ideas notwithstanding--and from the inside RFK is ... well, let's say not quite as aggressively ugly. It's of the "concrete donut" generation of multipurpose bowls, but not as generic as a Veterans Stadium or a Three Rivers. The curve of the stands hugs the baselines ever so slightly, and the upper decks bulge upwards to provide more seating behind first and third base, resulting in RFK's distinctive curved roof.

Actually, the Nats should feel right at home, because if there's one stadium that RFK most resembles, it's Montreal's Olympic Stadium, if you blew the roof off of it and installed a grass field. There's the same concrete architecture, the same sickly-yellow plastic seats, the same blank vertical wall beyond the outfield where bleachers should be (here dark green in place of the Big O's blue), the same sense that beyond the donut's rim, you could be anywhere on the continent.

It didn't help that the team's MLB owners look to have taken a laissez-faire approach to maintaining what they see as temporary digs: The stadium is badly in need of repainting, and one men's-room stall turned out to be the final resting place of a broken light fixture. There's a new $5 million sound system, but that's not exactly a plus, unless your idea of a good time is having your ears assaulted by 100 dB of Kool and the Gang.

But as cheerless as what we should probably call pre-Camdenian stadium design can be, it's not all bad, either. RFK has just two decks, as opposed to the three or four that you get in more recent stadiums, and the top deck is cantilevered over the lower one, casting a couple of thousand spectators into shadow to benefit a much larger number above: Our seats, six rows from the back of the upper deck, felt closer to the action than the front-row upper boxes at a Camden Yards or Jacobs Field. The cantilevering, combined with the overhanging roof, also makes for a tightly enclosed space that was reportedly the loudest outdoor stadium in the NFL when the Redskins played there, something we witnessed first hand when Nick Johnson launched a two-run triple to deepest center field to tie the score at three, and the upper deck shook beneath our feet.

(That triple, incidentally, was the longest ball hit all day, despite the presence on the mound of the uninspiring ex-Yankee tandem of Brad Halsey and Esteban Loaiza. Earlier in the game, Shawn Green launched a ball that seemed headed for the Anacostia River, only to have it fall into Jose Guillen's glove several feet shy of the warning track. Small sample size, I know, but the expectation that RFK will be a pitchers' haven looks to be right on the money.)

RFK has a few other distinctive touches--Wrigleyesque catwalks to take you from the concourses to the overhanging upper deck, the scattered outfield seats painted white that remind you that Frank Howard once launched home runs here--but really, it's unlikely anyone but us was paying much attention to this stuff. The real attraction was on the field: 25 major-league baseball players (or, if you prefer, 24 plus Cristian Guzman) wearing white "W's" on their red caps, for the first time in 33-odd years.

The fans, in their freshly bought hideous red-with-gold-drop-shadow block-type Nationals jerseys--the second agenda item for the new Nats owners, after sending Jim Bowden packing, should be to get a real uniform design--seemed a bit bewildered to find themselves with a team, but unfailingly enthusiastic nonetheless. They cheered the player introductions; they cheered weak groundouts to the opposing shortstop; they cheered the lucky-seat winner who successfully answered four questions that could only loosely be considered trivia (sample: "What division are the Washington Nationals in?"); they cheered "Screech," the bald eagle mascot that emerged from a seven-foot "shell" before the game, looking like a bedraggled chicken or maybe a stunt double for the Brooklyn Cyclones' Sandy the Seagull. When Jose Vidro hit a sac fly that brought Washington to within a 3-1 deficit, about half the crowd rose in a standing ovation.

The crowd's other notable attribute: No matter where you went in the ballpark, it was overwhelmingly white, I'd say 95% if not more (the ethnicity running a distant second appeared to be Japanese). That's not unusual for baseball, of course, but it is for D.C., where less than a third of the population is white.

This was an undeniably suburban crowd, then, many of them no doubt recovering Orioles fans from the Maryland suburbs. Witness the scattered "O!" shouts during the "Oh say does that star-spangled..." stanza of the national anthem, and the woman in front of me remarked to her seatmate at one point that with two local teams, "If they play each other, I just can't lose!" That could be good news for those who argue that the Nats' presence will draw suburban wallets to D.C., but it's got to be bad news for Peter Angelos, since it could be hard to keep the kids up on I-95 once they've gotten a taste of riding to games on the Metro.

Or maybe not, given that while up the turnpike last weekend, the Orioles were sweeping the Yanks behind sellout crowds, the RFK games featured thousands of empty seats down the lines and in the outfield. No matter how you spin it--it was the Diamondbacks, ticket sales got started late, the Wizards were playing as well--35,000 fans for a team's first-ever Sunday game, on a beautiful spring day that topped 70 degrees, is not exactly getting off to a rollicking start.

All this would be nitpicking, no doubt, to the thousands of happy fans who shouted "Let's Go Nats!" as their team completed a sweep of the dismal Snakes, then lined up 30-deep outside Metro stations woefully unprepared for even a modest turnout. I was at the final Expos road game at Shea Stadium last fall, and the sight of thousands of Montreal loyalists, clad in powder-blue Tim Raines and Gary Carter jerseys, saying goodbye to their team forever, was a heartwrenching sight. The slow execution of the Expos was painful to watch, and will ultimately prove costly to the D.C. residents who will bear the cost of the deal to bring the team to Washington, but it's at least heartening to be reminded that for every team that dies, a new one is reborn: The cycle of baseball life continues.

Now if they can just do something about those uniforms.

Neil deMause is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Neil's other articles. You can contact Neil by clicking here

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