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Take Me Out to RFK Stadium

Welcome to Flashback Friday: Take Me Out to 34 Ballparks [1], a celebration, critique and countdown of every major league ballpark one baseball fan has been fortunate enough to visit in a lifetime of going to ballgames.

HOME TEAM: Washington Nationals
VISITED: April 29, 2005 [2]
CHRONOLOGY: 29th of 34
RANKING: 30th of 34

I’m grading on a curve here, a fairly generous curve. On most counts, there is no way RFK Stadium was any better than any place I’ve been to see a ballgame. Except for eschewing a roof, a carpet and optional currency exchange, it wasn’t necessarily better than the facility it unwittingly succeeded, ol’ No. 34 on the countdown [3], Olympic Stadium. But the curve is in effect here for a good reason: RFK was taking a long nap when it was nudged awake to host its first major league ballgames in 34 seasons. For something that was so somnambulant for so long, RFK served its temporary purpose remarkably well.

Don’t get me wrong. The place was a dump. I don’t mean in that Shea “it’s a dump, but it’s our dump” lovable way, either. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was used for a tire fire when it wasn’t being used for baseball. It was dark, it was cramped, it was MacArthur Park [4] come to life: someone left this cake out in the rain, the sweet green icing was long melted and it showed. [5]

But it came to life in 2005 when the Expos became the Nationals, and you’d be surprised how beautiful a “dump” can be when it’s got baseball and baseball fans.

No you wouldn’t. You went to Shea.

The Shea-RFK connection was generational and utilitarian. They were the first intentional multipurpose stadiums built, RFK — then D.C. Stadium  opened for football in ’61 and baseball in ’62, two years before Shea played host to the Mets and Jets. (Candlestick Park debuted in 1960, but the 49ers resisted its charms until 1971.) With the Redskins skedaddled to Maryland in 1997 and the Senators, of course, transplanted to Texas a quarter-century earlier, nothing but MLS soccer was regularly scheduled at RFK for nearly a decade in advance of the Nationals landing. The Mets, meanwhile, kept using Shea.

By the 21st century, Shea, however dowdy one considered it, was lived-in. RFK had been all but abandoned (no offense, D.C. United fans). The seats, for example, were faded from years of sun with no butts to shield them. Lighting had never been upgraded in the concourses. Everything was so…concrete. The flourishes meant to cheer up Shea, the Vet and other allegedly outmoded stadia that endured while the stylish retro parks were rising had completely missed RFK upon its return to baseball in 2005. MLB as owner of the otherwise orphaned Nationals wasn’t going to upgrade more than necessary for what was foreseen as a short stay…and doing what was necessary required $18.5 million of heavy lifting.

The backdrop to the playing field was a little cheerier, as it should have been given the joyous occasion of having a team again. I liked the long list of great Washington sportsmen (clunky but unique) beyond the outfield fence. I liked the DC clock. I liked that they made what they could green. RFK did a very good impression of a ballpark in spots.

The Nats were not an expansion club, but there was that new team smell to the fan base. Stephanie and I arrived in the Union Station Friday afternoon, a few hours before gametime. As we walked to our hotel, we saw several Nats caps (home and away models). My Mets cap brought a few “going to the game tonight, huh?” inquiries. The Nats were 11-11 heading in, same as the Mets — not exactly the kind of matchup you’d figure would have a city on edge, but Washington hadn’t had a Friday night ballgame to attend since September 17, 1971, so why not be excited?

I’d made probably more than a dozen visits to D.C. over the years for business purposes, but I was oh boy! excited, too. All those trips to town and — with one Baltimore detour exception — no baseball on the agenda. I accepted it as perfectly normal before. In hindsight, it was positively unAmerican that America’s capital lacked the National Pastime. I still felt bad about Montreal losing the Expos, but this part of it, baseball in Washington, was the right thing to have.

We walked back to Union Station and boarded the Metro that would take us to whatever connections took us to RFK. There were more baseball-bound passengers per capita on the Red line to the Green line to the Blue line to the Stadium-Armory stop than there seemed to be most Friday nights on the 7 (at least pre-2005). Lots of those W caps. Not a few NY caps for our side, too; we befriended a fellow in a KINGMAN 26 jersey on the return trip. This was the Mets’ first game ever in Washington. We had fellow pilgrims.

It indeed took a pilgrimage to get to RFK. Changing trains twice wasn’t that big a deal, but the famously efficient Metro seemed to chug along forever. Then marching from the station to the stadium was a whole other dreary journey through space and time. RFK pulled off the neat trick of being reachable by regular mass transit without feeling particularly accessible. Then again, it was a 34-year trek through the wilderness, so what’s another fifteen or twenty minutes?

A third kind of cap evinced itself among the National and Met brands, that of the Montreal Expos. Enough weird M’s to be noticeable. There were still some Exponents hanging on to whatever was left of what had been their team. It must have been a bit like the Giants fans who traveled from New York to Philadelphia for a fix in 1958. I was still publicly mourning the demise of the Expos [6], so when I saw a Montreal loyalist, I tried to give him the thumbs-up, let him know I was with him in spirit if not for the same team as him.

He told me to go fuck myself, believing I was mocking him. I guess something was lost in the translation between my Mets cap and my thumb going up. If I’d just lost my team seven months earlier, I’d be touchy, too.

I let the Ex-pat be as we burrowed at last into RFK. Dark and dank as it was, there was a surge of electricity when we saw the field. It was a baseball game, complete with Mets and 30,000 people. Many were fans who overreacted to every pitch, swing and bounce. I found the first-month enthusiasm invigorating — even if the bouncing felt a little unsafe when the P.A. played Jump Around by House of Pain during the seventh-inning stretch and the upper deck turned into a trampoline. In the fifth, when I was up seeking a pretzel-like snack when Liván Hernandez homered (which the program warned he might do). A buzz went through the dim hallways and a crowd gathered around a lone monitor. “Hey! Our pitcher hit one out!” This was giddy innocence on display, and if a dump couldn’t dampen their spirit, more power to them.

Sadly, the crowd included four dopes who had tickets because they had tickets, probably a circumstance of Washington having a surfeit of climbers. We were in seats graciously sent to us by my friend Jeff’s Uncle Frank, an area Cubs fan who decided to buy a season subscription in the name of supporting his new local team. I feared for Uncle Frank’s sanity if the quartet behind us would wind up behind him. They were twentysomethings who talked nonstop for nine innings about the tricks and travails of their law office. At that moment, I wanted to kick them Outside the Beltway.

Back on the field, the park was cavernous for the Mets (who were in a nasty hitting slump at the time) and couldn’t hold the Nats, whose balls were jumping off of bats like House of Pain was in effect, y’all. A homer for Liván. A homer for home team catcher Brian Schneider. Another for their right fielder Jose Guillen. All of them off Met starter and loser Jae Seo. A monumental night for Washington, less Seo for the team from New York.

“Ha! We beat you!” was a common reaction we got on the way out and on the Metro back. Let ’em have their moment, I magnanimized. It’s April and they don’t know that their team isn’t going anywhere (though, to be fair, the Nationals would be in first place as late as July 25). I didn’t like losing, but I didn’t altogether mind the teasing. They waited, they earned it. They’d wait a few more years for a modern facility. As indicated, the concessions left everything to be desired. The “team store” was stuffed into a trailer in the parking lot. Not a problem. The point wasn’t that there wasn’t a store. The point was that there was a team.

It was good enough as temporary encampments go. It was RFK Stadium.