Fences at RFK Stadium driving hitters up a wall

"The bottom line is this suits [the Nationals] - look at our home record."

July 19, 2005|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - It was the second inning, and the Washington Nationals trailed the New York Mets 1-0. But not, it seemed, for long.

Vinny Castilla, Washington's third baseman, lifted a drive off Mets starter Kris Benson that seemed poised to clear the RFK Stadium fence in left.

But something happened on the way to a home run. The ball stayed in play and a surprised Castilla pulled into second with a double.

Whatever befell Castilla's shot in the July 7 game - an unfavorable wind, humidity or a "380" mark on the fence that stadium consultants say might be slightly off - seems to have victimized RFK batters all year.

Nobody can quite explain why there had been just 45 homers hit at the stadium heading into the All-Star break, marking baseball's lowest total. Or why the renovated, 44-year-old stadium plays like Bryce Canyon and has become one of the game's best pitchers' parks.

A relatively big park, RFK figured to favor pitchers - but not by this much.

Some of the Nationals have come to believe the field's dimensions are bigger than advertised, particularly in the left-center and right-center power alleys that have become notorious for gobbling up promising fly balls. The players' suspicions are the product of their periodic frustrations at the plate and the knowledge that contractors had to rush to complete an $18.5 million renovation to get the stadium ready for Opening Day. The Nationals are the first team to play a regular-season baseball game at RFK since 1971.

Castilla did an abbreviated Sammy Sosa-like hop and paused to gaze at the ball he hit in the Mets game. He said he couldn't have hit it much better.

His teammate, Matt Cepicky, could relate. Cepicky, now playing for Triple-A New Orleans, also doubled to the gap in left-center in the game and was feeling a little robbed.

"It says 380 [feet], but it can't be," Cepicky said with a half-smile after his shot fell shy of the wall, and the Nationals lost another homer-free game, 3-2. "That's all I've got," the outfielder, who is 6 feet 2, 215 pounds, said of his drive.

The 45 homers were less than one-third the total of Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark, which had 141 home runs and ranked first in the majors.

There were no homers again last night - just more long outs - when Washington began a homestand against the Colorado Rockies with a 5-4 loss.

"Something's different," said Jim Hannan, a former Washington Senator who pitched at RFK during its first incarnation from 1962 through 1970 and said it played "fair." In fact, the stadium was then known for the upper deck seats painted white to mark where Senators slugger Frank Howard's moon shots landed.

"The configuration is the same one we played, so I don't know what it is," said Hannan, who has been to a handful of Nationals games. "The ball seems like it carries to right pretty good, but left to center it just doesn't. I saw [Jose] Guillen hit one to left-center, and it jumped off the bat sky-high and looked like a [Harmon] Killebrew shot. But it sort of came straight down."

Said Hannan: "One difference is they have the JumboTron [outfield scoreboard] in there now, and I wonder if that has changed the air currents up there."

Like Cepicky, Guillen, the Nationals' home run leader, has also questioned whether the dimensions are correctly marked. He had 18 home runs heading into the All-Star break - 17 of them on the road.

Stadium architects and consultants say the ballplayers' skepticism about the 380 signs may technically be warranted.

"Here's a little secret for you," said Lane Welter, a Washington-based architect for HNTB, which designed the RFK renovations. "The 380 mark could technically be off for a number of different reasons."

Among them: The 8-foot-high outfield fence from left to center must be periodically taken down when the field is converted from baseball to soccer.

Said Welter: "It is potentially possible that the 380 mark could get moved a little depending on how they take the fence down and where they put it back up."

Before the Nationals' April 14 home opener, Major League Baseball dispatched Ellicott City-based consultant Murray Cook to ensure the field met specifications.

Cook inspected the bullpens and dugouts and checked the field dimensions with a 300-foot tape measure.

RFK's field checked out as 410 feet from home plate to center and 336 feet down the lines. But Cook said he was unable to verify the stated distance to the power alleys because "the wall was not totally installed."

Both Welter and Cook say that if the 380 signs are off, the disparity wouldn't be enough to make much of a difference in home runs.

Nationals president Tony Tavares agreed. "Is it possible they've moved? Slightly. But we're not talking about 400 feet."

In any case, the stadium wouldn't be in violation because, according to Cook, "the rule book really gives no indication of how deep the alleys should be. Most are somewhere between 370 and 380."

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