When the vagabond Montreal Expos traveled to San Juan for 22 games last season, they quickly discovered that Hiram Bithorn Stadium was not the most hospitable place to play.
It's not that the fans were hostile or the field unplayable. It was that the dugouts were simply too small. Players were draped on the steps, and some even left the dugout entirely, recalled Mike Wallace, the team's equipment manager.
A crew works on RFK Stadium's home team dugout to fit players who are bigger than when the Senators left in 1971.
(Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
"Normally, you're not allowed to leave [the dugout] during games," Wallace said. "But [the umpires] just turned a blind eye to it."
The stadium in Puerto Rico had been used mostly for winter league games, when teams often divide their rosters, Wallace said. But Major League Baseball officials wanted to make sure such a problem is not repeated when the Expos, now the Washington Nationals, move into their new, if temporary, home at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in April.
As RFK undergoes a whirlwind upgrade, ensuring comfortable seating for the players is as important as it is for the fans. To that end, concrete has been poured to reshape the dugouts, which were about 41 feet long during the Washington Senators' heyday but are being lengthened significantly.
"Ours won't be the biggest or the smallest, but we'll have a happy medium with MLB," said Dave Alexander, general superintendent for Turner Construction, which is handling RFK renovations. "They told us: Make sure they are larger than the ones in Puerto Rico."
The dugouts are among many areas on which contractors are working simultaneously. Stained carpets and aging fixtures have been removed from the locker rooms. Pits have been laid in the bowels of the stadium to create batting tunnels where players practice hitting. And a $130,000 mechanized system that can move thousands of seats from behind the third base line into left field has been ordered. The system will be used to reconfigure the field for D.C. United soccer matches.
The playing field remains mostly dirt. The grass turf is being cultivated in a greenhouse and will be laid at the end of this month.
Expanding the dugouts has not been easy. When Murray Cook, a consultant for Major League Baseball, took a tour of the stadium a few months ago, he found a board covering the third base dugout. Baseball has not been played at RFK since the Senators left in 1971, and the dugouts had to be covered when football or soccer games were played.
Cook said there is no standard size for dugouts. Newer stadiums, he said, generally have larger ones than do older stadiums. In part, that's because the video cameras that teams use to record players for coaching purposes are inside dugouts.
It also might be because of the increased size of today's players.
In their final season, the Senators featured 6-foot-7, 255-pound slugger Frank Howard and 12 other players who weighed 200 pounds or more. Last season, the Expos had 19 players who weighed at least 200 pounds.
Architects had a challenge to make more room for these bigger athletes.
Along the third base line, RFK's seats are movable because they were designed to swing into left field for football and soccer games. That allowed workers to expand the dugout more easily. But on the first base side, the seats do not move, and two rows of about a dozen seats apiece had to be removed.
The upshot is that the third base dugout will be larger -- about 63 feet long compared with 53 feet on the first base side, according to Lane Welter, an architect for HNTB, which is handling the design work.
And that will mean a perk for the home team. The Nationals have chosen to sit in the third base dugout because D.C. United players use a locker room near the first base dugout. Visiting teams will use a smaller locker room, separate from the United's room, which is undergoing renovations on the first base side.
Dugouts, Wallace said, are not luxurious. But, he added, "You want to have it where players are comfortable and get a full view of the game."
Alexander said that workers soon will begin double shifts, 10 hours apiece, to get the stadium ready for the Nationals' April 3 exhibition game. By then, each dugout should be ready for 30 players and coaches, bat and helmet racks, video cameras, a medical trainer and training supplies, water fountains, coolers and everything else that will make the once-boarded-up space come alive again.