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RFK Stadium


A National Treasure?

So baseball is back in Washington after a 33-season absence. I feel that this is a very good -- and just -- thing. But is their new home, RFK Stadium, a "national treasure"?

Ballpark Stats

First baseball game:  April 9, 1962. President Kennedy threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Capacity:  approx. 44,000 for baseball
Architects: a joint venture that included the Osborn Co. of Cleveland
Home dugout: 3B side
Field points: East
Playing surface: grass
Betcha didn't know: Original name was District of Columbia Stadium. It was renamed RFK Stadium in 1969.

Hardly. It leaves a lot to be desired, even as a temporary home. As many have pointed out, it was showing its age when the last incarnation of the Senators left town in 1971. But the fact that it escaped the wrecking ball when the Redskins moved a few miles east to Landover gave Major League Baseball a place to park the Expos while a shiny new ballpark is being designed and constructed elsewhere in D.C. For that, I'm thankful.

BASEBALLPARKS.COM visited RFK to see what the place looked like now that big-league baseball is being played here again. While there certainly aren't as many features and "niceties" as you'll find at brand-new parks, I'll hit some of the noteworthy highs and lows of the stadium.

First, a bit of history. The Redskins and Senators shared venerable Griffith Stadium for many years (Howard University Hospital now occupies the site, by the way), but by the mid-1950s, it had gone from being venerable to creaky. An act of Congress in 1957 authorized a new stadium to be built, and groundbreaking finally occurred on July 8, 1960. This wasn't nearly in time to prevent the original Senators from fleeing town to Minnesota following the 1960 season.

Since it was unthinkable to many that the Nation's Capital should be without baseball, an expansion team was hurriedly approved, and a second coming of the Senators played one year in Griffith Stadium in 1961 while "District of Columbia Stadium" (as it was called then) was being completed. The Redskins started playing in the new facility in 1961, while the Senators' first game there was April 9, 1962.

Those Senators lost as regularly as the originals, although they were the host team for the All Star Games in 1962 and 1969. Also in 1969, the stadium was renamed in honor of Robert F. Kennedy.

Untapped markets in the Western half of the country were still beckoning for big-league teams, and on September 20, 1971, owner Bob Short received permission from the American League to move his franchise to Arlington, Texas for the 1972 season. They would become the Texas Rangers.

Many of you have read about (or, like me, remember) the events of Sept. 30, 1971. The Senators' last game in D.C. was against the Yankees, and with the home team ahead 7-5 with two outs in the ninth inning, many in the crowd of 14,460 ran onto the field. Some wanted souvenirs (like grass and infield dirt), others just wanted to vent their anger at Short for moving the team. The result was a forfeit.

The Redskins continued to play at RFK through 1996, and it was used for a variety of other events: the USFL; various soccer franchises; huge concerts; Promise Keepers; even the Orioles played some exhibition games here. By the time MLB was looking to return here, the only regular tenant was the D.C. United soccer team.

So the Montreal Expos have become the Washington Nationals, and fans of the D.C. area again have a team to call their own ... so let's take a look at their home field.

On Deck -- The Setting

If you've visited Washington, you know that there is more than one "Capitol Street," depending on which direction you're heading from the capitol building itself. South Capitol heads directly south of the domed seat of government, and this is where the new ballpark is likely to be built. If you head due east, you'll be on East Capitol Street, and just before it crosses the Anacostia River, you'll find RFK Stadium. This puts the facility in an almost straight line from the Washington Monument through the Capitol to RFK.

This is not a "commercial" part of town by any means. There are no office buildings or high-rise condos here, although there is a fairly convenient subway (in Washington, it's called The Metro) station a block away at the D.C. Armory. This is important, because driving to a Nationals game is not a pleasant experience. Traffic in D.C. is usually horrible, and when you're facing rush-hour congestion on your way to an evening game, it's awful.

There are large lots on the north and south sides of the stadium, but entering the lots themselves can be tricky, especially if you follow the exact directions provided on the Nationals' website. I did exactly that, coming in from northern Virginia (it took 60 minutes to traverse one four-mile stretch of the route, and that was with no accidents in sight), and when I arrived at the stadium, I found that the ramp to the south lots was impossible to reach from East Capitol Street, which is the route described on the team's website.

If you think RFK's setting along the banks of the Anacostia River makes it picturesque and a nice neighborhood, you'd be mistaken. I advise you to take the Metro, or if you drive, park in one of the big lots at the stadium and not start searching along the surrounding streets for a parking space.

You want further proof that this isn't a very nice part of town? In June, when the Nationals returned from a road trip, they went to the parking lot next to the stadium to get in their cars and drive home. Unfortunately, the players and coaches found that 11 of their cars had been broken into, and one had been stolen.

First base -- The Exterior

There are some large banners and advertising signs that cover some of the exterior of RFK. This might actually be a good thing, because the years haven't been kind to the outside of this stadium.

Since the "footprint" of the structure itself is round, there aren't any corners or interesting angles with which to do any architectural flourishes. The main gates and ticket windows are behind home plate, which is at the west end of the stadium. There is a small plaza-like area there, but other than people hawking credit cards, there aren't any souvenir stands or food vendors here -- much unlike the parks to the north in Baltimore, New York and Boston, where there is a fun variety of merchants and activities outside the gates.

Second base -- The Design

This was among the first of the multi-purpose stadiums that started dotting the cityscapes in the 1960s. Consequently, it looks rather like a concrete doughnut, as did the cookie-cutter facilities in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, New York, Oakland and Philadelphia.

I think it's noteworthy to look at who designed this stadium. Once Congress authorized the facility, a joint venture of three firms was behind the architecture and engineering: George Dahl of Dallas; Ewin Engineering Associates of D.C. and the Osborn Company of Cleveland. If this last company rings a bell, it should. During the second and third decades of the 20th Century, they designed these ballparks: Forbes Field; Fenway; Tiger Stadium; Wrigley; the Polo Grounds; Sportsman's Park and Yankee Stadium!

Alas, RFK Stadium didn't turn out to be "classic" like these others. I don't think it's because Osborn fell down on the job. No, the times called for shiny, symmetrical facilities that could be shared by baseball and football teams. Kind of hard to make a classic baseball park with marching orders like this.

The Nationals say that the stadium has five levels or "tiers" of seats, although the 500 level is really just the area above the walkway running through the upper deck, separating it from the 400-level seats, and the 100, 200 and 300 seats are all on the lower level. In between is the small level that includes "loge" seats and the press box.

One aspect that, perhaps, is borrowed from classic ballparks is the overhang. It is huge. It runs all the way around the circular stadium, and it covers a large percentage of the upper deck.

You'll notice, though, that this roof isn't exactly the same height above the field all the way around. That's because the upper deck has more rows directly behind first base and third base, meaning the roof bows upward at those points. This is one way that RFK differs from the other cookie cutters of its time.

Third base -- The Essentials

So the almost-half-century-old design doesn't make you yearn for more stadiums with this look. But what about improvements that were made, and the prices and the food?

Well, some of the renovations are dandy, while others were necessary but not obvious to the casual fan.

First, the biggest improvement over the "old" RFK (when the Redskins played here or when the Orioles played exhibition games) is the beautiful video screen to the right of the scoreboard. This high-resolution, color screen provides photos and stats of the players -- and could be used for video replays, although that didn't happen when I was there. They also added some of those annoying "ribbon boards" on the facing of the upper deck (see the bottom of the photo below), but I'll try not to hold that against the District of Columbia.

Second, a great deal of work went into re-doing the turf. This was a tricky proposition since a soccer team plays at RFK, too, and their seasons do overlap. Except for the unsightly seams in the outfield (where, I assume, the third-base stands are dragged around into the outfield to accommodate the soccer field), I would say that they did a good job. Many players, though, aren't so happy with the playing conditions, especially the infield dirt and the mound. But it all looks nice!

Third, the dugouts and clubhouses were re-done -- although many players have complained about the unsavory path between clubhouse and dugout.

Fourth, the press box was brought up to modern standards. I actually sat in the cramped baseball press box for a football game at RFK years ago, and it was pretty dilapidated. I bet it really took some work to bring it around.

It doesn't seem to me, though, that much was done to the parking lots or the concourses within the stadium. Regarding the latter, short of tearing the place down and starting over, I don't think there's a lot that could've been done to make them less confining. Truly, the time spent on the concourses are the worst minutes you'll spend at a Nationals game, since they are dreary, full of smokers and utterly congested. In fact, some of the biggest news coming from RFK when baseball resumed in April of 2005 involved the monstrous lines for concessions stands, ATMs and bathrooms.

I'm also guessing that the sound system wasn't upgraded. This is a shame, because it is clearly inadequate. It is simply not loud enough, meaning it's not only difficult to make out what the PA announcer is saying, you can't even tell what song is playing between innings. This is quite reminiscent of the horrid Metrodome.

But it's baseball ... big league baseball, in fact! And that's something that Washingtonians haven't been able to embrace since the Nixon administration. So it should be worth the price of admission (and parking and souvenirs and concessions), right?

Well, let's take a look. All of the parking lots around RFK that I saw charged $10. I can't say that this is gouging, because I've seen higher prices at a number of Major League parks. Not counting those that don't really have public lots close by (Fenway, Wrigley, etc.), I've seen $20 and $15 in Houston, San Diego, Denver and more.

As at most parks, ticket prices have a wide range. The most expensive (Diamond Boxes at $90) aren't available for single-game purchase, but you can often get an Infield Box ($45) or Baseline Box ($40), which are also quite close to the field. These are "100" and "200" level seats. The others in the lower level ("300") cost from $25 to $35. The "loge" level seats -- there aren't very many of them -- range from $20 to $45. In the upper-most deck ("400" and "500"), seats in the infield cost $20 and $15. Those beyond the infield cost $15, $10 and $7.

How do these compare with other parks? Pretty typical, in my opinion. In fact, I think the upper-deck seats are a really good value, since they aren't as high as at many other parks.

I found the food offerings to be disappointing in their variety, but the prices were in line with other big-league venues. The souvenirs were hard to assess, since (believe it or not) there is no souvenir store in RFK. There are plenty of small stands, all with a different selection of items, and there is a large tent outside the stadium with the largest array of merchandise, but no central store. What did the Redskins do when they played there?

And I have to devote a paragraph to the cost of programs at RFK Stadium. They charge $10. No, these are not "special commemorative limited-edition" programs. They are run-of-the-mill programs with ads, articles, rosters and a scorecard. And there is no scorecard-only option, either. All they sell are $10 programs. I'm not making this up.

Sliding into home -- Summary

But despite it all, Major League Baseball is back in our nation's capital. This is no small thing, and it is long overdue. I have to admit, though, that attendance in the early stages of the National's first season has been disappointing to me. I really thought there would be quite a few 40,000-plus home games, but they have been few and far between. As I write this, the Nats have played in front of 71% of RFK's capacity, while averaging about 32,000 fans a home game. This isn't bad, especially when you consider that in 2004, the Expos averaged 9,236, but I really thought all of the pent-up demand in the Washington area would translate into quite a few sell-outs. The new ballpark in 2008 might help fix that.

And speaking of the Expos, Chicago writer Chris De Luca made this keen observation: "One nice thing you can say about RFK Stadium -- it will never be as drab as Olympic Stadium ..."

I think we all need to keep this in mind. The home games of the Expos in Montreal's Olympic Stadium were, well, a fright. RFK Stadium, with all of its 44-year-old faults, is an enormous step forward for this franchise and, frankly, for Major League Baseball. I'm glad they're once again playing the national pastime in our nation's capital!