Field Of Renewed Dreams

Workers put in extra innings to spruce up RFK Stadium by tonight, when baseball finally returns to D.C.

April 14, 2005|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

When the poet Rudyard Kipling defined a man as one who keeps his head while all others around him are losing theirs, he could have been describing a clutch hitter - the Cal Ripken or Derek Jeter who tunes out the frenzy of a late-inning crowd, takes a nice, steady swing, and lines a game-winning single up the middle.

Or he might have been describing the sort of baseball people who rarely draw the fan adoration of a Ripken or a Jeter, let alone the allusions of poets. Tonight, when big league baseball finally returns to Washington after a 33-season absence, the game won't just be the coming-out party for slugger Brad Wilkerson or manager and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. The curtain will also rise on heroes of a less-heralded kind: the countless engineers, electricians, architects and others who have worked frantically since December to get the 44-year-old stadium up to speed for Opening Day.

"Things normally happen slowly in baseball," said one of those workers, Jimmy Rodgers, the team's head groundskeeper, standing in the emerald grass of his brand-new infield this week. "Teams are slow to mature. So are fields and pitcher's mounds. We really had to hustle to get this together."

Just days before President Bush would throw out the first pitch, that hustle - and not a few jitters - were in evidence as the Nationals and their governing body, the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission, raced to complete their work. In the front office, PR personnel had no time to speak with reporters. In the ballpark, workers were bolting down seats, rigging wiring, welding gates, testing scoreboards and slapping on final coats of paint.

Rodgers, like other workers on hand, seemed like just the kind of guy you'd want on deck with the game on the line. In his red Nationals jacket, the one-time college catcher took a look around the spruced-up field, smiled wearily and summed up the chaos.

"Good people working here," he said with a shrug. "That's what matters. This has come together well. If we had to play the game tonight, we could do it."

Rodgers loves the "agrarian" nature of the game. An unassuming former English major who grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm, he has tended ball fields at the Florida Marlins spring training complex and run the grounds crew at the University of Virginia.

For him, success lies in tending to details - the particulars of a fine infield, for example.

"Ninety percent of baseball happens on clay," he says, momentarily shutting off the high-powered hose he was using to water the grass. "I haven't had a chance to get feedback from my players yet, but I'll stay in touch with them, working to get the moisture and compaction the way they like it. There's no magic formula to it, but after you work with infields for a while, you do get a feel."

He doesn't claim more than his share of credit for the rest of the field, which was built by a man he holds in awe - Roger Bossard of the Chicago White Sox, renowned in baseball for his knowledge of grasses, drainage and soils. When Bossard arrived at RFK in early March, "everything you see here was a hole in the ground, 16 inches deep," Rodgers says. "He built an incredible field - the irrigation, the pitch in various places for drainage, the root zone. It was an intense and precise enterprise."

So is Rodgers' job. The Nationals share RFK with D.C. United of Major League Soccer, making it one of only four multi-use stadiums in the majors. The soccer team has 18 home games this year, and, since the two sports' seasons overlap, Rodgers is in charge of converting the field from one sport to the other and back again.

Each time, his crew will, among other tasks, have to place fresh sod over the baseball clay, trimming and beveling the turf's edges so it will fit evenly. The pitcher's mound, which rests on a circular metal plate just below the playing surface, will be lowered hydraulically into a cavity, filled and sodded over for soccer, then raised back up for baseball again. "It does seem like a lot," he says, wiping the sweat from his brow.

And there are, as ever, aesthetic concerns. The outlines from a soccer field were still visible on the outfield grass earlier this week. "We'll do our best to cover those lines," he says. "We'll hose them, power-wash them, drop the mower level down a quarter of an inch and mow deeper, and then finish it off with a green dye. It won't be perfect, but it'll look very, very good."

He excuses himself and returns to work, crouching over two assistants as they carefully spray-paint the word "Nationals" into the grass behind home plate.

A photographer draws near, camera in hand. Rodgers shoos him away.

"I just finished training them to do this," he says gently. "Do you mind? I really don't want them to be nervous."

On the warning track in left-center field, just below the 380 sign on the green-padded wall, Paul Oakes stands deep in thought.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.