D.C.'s baseball fixer-upper

RFK Stadium: The 43-year-old venue needs a lot of work before Opening Day, and the D.C. Council votes today on renovation money.

December 14, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - RFK Stadium, the once and future home of major league baseball in the nation's capital, doesn't yet look like a field of dreams.

It's configured for soccer, not baseball. The field must be replaced, and the dugouts, locker rooms and press box need upgrades.

On a rainy day last week, a quarter of the field was mud and tire tracks. It looked like Vince Lombardi should be coaching football here - which he once did for the Washington Redskins. But that was in 1969.

Thirty-five years later, the stadium stands ready to receive a speedy, $18.5 million makeover to get it ready for the April 14 home opener of the Washington Nationals. First, though, the D.C. Council must approve the renovation money - the final vote is today - as part of a half-billion-dollar package that includes funding for a new stadium on the Anacostia River.

Like a stand-in for a Broadway show, RFK Stadium will serve as the temporary home of the Nationals for three years while the new stadium is built.

Funding for both projects was preliminarily approved by the council on Nov. 30 on a 6-4 vote. Chairman Linda Cropp and two other members abstained, hoping to send a message that Major League Baseball needed to negotiate a better deal for the District.

As the final vote approached, Cropp indicated that she would likely back the measure, meaning it will probably be approved.

According to officials familiar with the negotiations, baseball has agreed to modify the stadium deal to address specific council concerns.

Those concerns included a 12-day annual limit on when the city can use the new stadium, a provision requiring the city to pay damages if the stadium is not built on time and worries that the deal's language wasn't strong enough regarding baseball's community responsibilities.

Baseball agreed to compromise on all three issues - and more. "We've tried to be as flexible as we can," said John McHale, a Major League Baseball vice president, who declined to provide details.

Baseball recently sent a list of the concessions to the city. Some issues - like the exact number of days the city can use the stadium - must still be worked out.

Cropp had requested just that sort of flexibility.

Said Cropp spokesman Mark Johnson: "My impression is she's pretty much on the road to getting something she can support."

A number of council amendments are expected to be voted on today, including one that would create a new cap so that stadium costs aren't out of control.

Approval of the funding will mean, among other things, that contractors can get started on giving RFK its second life.

"Everything is all teed up to go," said Scott Burrell, director of special projects for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

Built in 1961 as D.C. Stadium, the building with the distinctive curving roof was home to the Redskins, who left for FedEx Field in 1997, and to baseball's Senators until they departed for Texas 33 years ago.

Many baseball-starved Washingtonians thought they might never see another game in the stadium where Ted Williams once managed and Senators outfielder Frank Howard hit home runs that are still memorialized by painted white seats in the upper deck where the monster shots landed.

Stadium caretakers have preserved plaques with the names of Howard, John Riggins and other Senators and Redskins greats that ring the inside of the stadium.

When baseball announced in September that the Montreal Expos were relocating here, it meant not only that Washington was getting a new stadium, but also that RFK was being pressed back into service after the equivalent of a 33-year rain delay.

The return of baseball to the old stadium "is a symbolic coming full circle" for many fans angered that it took so long for the city to get another team, said William N. Hall, a member of the Sports and Entertainment Commission.

"It's a perfect stadium for a retro era," Hall said. "I think it's going to bring back the memories of 33 years ago."

Charlie Brotman is already thinking back to those days. The former Washington Senators public address announcer recalls that "when fans left old Griffith Stadium for RFK, they all thought it was too big. Now, it's going to be the same thing for RFK, but in reverse. Fans who have been going to Redskins games at FedEx [which holds 91,665] will appreciate RFK's size." The modernized RFK will hold about 43,000 for baseball.

But there's lots to do to get it ready.

"The thing is in serious disrepair," council member Jack Evans said at a recent meeting. "Twenty stadiums have been built and torn down since this thing was built."

Asked whether the city can get the facelift done in time for the opener, Burrell replied: "We have no choice."

To Burrell, who considers himself an amateur sports historian, it's a labor of love. While many stadiums today try to look old, this is the real thing, he says.

RFK has no luxury suites, which team owners today consider nearly as much a necessity as bathrooms. None are planned.

The closest thing to a luxury suite might be a mezzanine-level box where the sports commission's officials and guests will sit. Visitors have to duck to get through the entryway, which is low because of the sunken press box floor above.

The carpeting of the "suite" is a garish green reminiscent of the early '70s. "We call it the Brady Bunch Suite," Burrell says.

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