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RFK Still Gives Everyone a Fair Shake

Symmetrical Park Will Feature a Portable Mound, New Grass

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page D01

Coors Field, perched in the thin mountain air of Denver, is death to pitchers. The strongest sluggers have been sure they have ripped a home run at Houston's Minute Maid Park, only to watch it die in the center fielder's glove, for the fence is 435 feet away. Fenway Park has the Green Monster, which takes away as many home runs as it provides. Yankee Stadium is home to Death Valley, the wide-open acreage in left-center field, where the ball can seemingly roll for days.

What, then, to make of the Washington Nationals' temporary home, RFK Stadium, the UFO-like edifice on the outskirts of Capitol Hill that went 33 seasons without housing a baseball team? Will it be a pitcher's park? A hitter's park?

The dimensions at RFK will be similar to layout of the stadium when it last hosted the Senators. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)

"It's neither," said former Washington Senators pitcher Jim Hannan. "It's fair."

Baseball is returning to Washington for the first time since the Senators departed for Texas following the 1971 season. But it's not coming back to one of the quirky, retro-style ballparks that have become the norm since Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992. For at least the next three years, the Nationals will play their home games at RFK, a facility that opened in the fall of 1961 to house the Washington Redskins, and where the Senators began play the following spring. The differences in how the park will play this time around, architects and team officials say, will be negligible. Yes, RFK seemed special back then. "It was the crème de la crème of stadiums," Hannan said. And yes, it is worn down now. But from a player's standpoint, it lacked any signature, defining characteristics -- and still does.

"If you look at your multi-purpose stadiums, they're all kind of nondescript," said Frank Howard, the Senators' power-hitting outfielder from 1965 to 1971. "It's not like Fenway Park, with the left field wall. It's not like the Polo Grounds, with that deep center field. It's not like Yankee Stadium, with the graveyard out there. It was a dual-purpose stadium, and it was fair. I thought the ball didn't carry very well at night -- it was a better park to hit in during the day -- but that's about it."

The dimensions at the time were symmetrical -- 335 feet down the lines, 380 feet to the alleys, 410 feet to straightaway center -- and were almost identical to what they will be for the Nationals. The only difference: The foul poles will be 336 feet from home plate. Whether that's because they'll actually be one foot farther than they were 40 years ago can't be determined, said Lane Welter, the architect heading up RFK's renovation. Welter's team is working off the original documents, but given the layout they found when they went to work at the stadium, they think the foul poles were either mislabeled or slightly moved during the Senators' occupancy.

"We wanted it to be as close to what it was as possible, and it is," Welter said.

Those dimensions don't particularly favor offense or defense. In the 10 seasons the Senators played at the stadium, they averaged almost an identical number of runs at home as on the road -- 3.61 to 3.63, respectively.

"It was fair to both pitchers and hitters," Hannan said. "It didn't favor right-handed hitters or left-handed hitters. You didn't have a short porch for one side."

Home plate will be in the same spot as it was for the Senators. The outfield fence will be the same height now as it was then: eight feet. The foul ground down the lines in the outfield will be narrow, making it difficult for fielders to make plays before balls land in the seats. The only other change: Two rows of seats will be added in front of the existing seats behind home plate, cutting the amount of foul ground behind the plate from about 60 feet to 53 feet 2 inches.

The most significant change, it seems, will be the playing surface. Roger Bossard, who serves as the groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox and is an expert at overhauling fields -- which he has done in Detroit, Milwaukee, Arizona and Boston, among other places -- is in charge of the project. Last week, Bossard grabbed a shovel and helped his crew dig trenches for an irrigation system under the infield, which was marked off using small sticks. The field, Bossard said, will drain well enough to be able to withstand a thunderstorm that dumps 125,000 gallons of water down -- and be ready to play 30 minutes later.

The area for the mound, too, was staked out. Because the stadium will still be used for the D.C. United soccer team, the mound will be portable -- as portable as something that weighs a whopping 18,000 pounds can be. Bossard said the mound holds four tons of tightly packed clay, will be supported by a steel structure underneath and will be lifted off to storage each time the field is transformed for soccer.

By March 1, Bossard wants to have the sod -- rolls of a hybrid Bermuda grass that's less than a decade old, the "best you can buy," Bossard said -- completely installed so the roots can take hold by opening day. The rolls are 42 inches wide so that there will be as few seams as possible. Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden and President Tony Tavares were adamant that the playing surface be the best available.

"This surface will play fast," Bossard said.

That, Bowden said, means his club will have to field well, and was at least a small factor in pursuing free agent shortstop Cristian Guzman, known for his slick glove, and third baseman Vinny Castilla, who made only six errors in 148 games last year.

"That's like sacred ground for the players, and we realize that," Welter said. "You'll see the first baseman come out and get his area ready. . . . It's an art form in and of itself. We need to make them comfortable with the field."

Last week, two Nationals -- catcher Brian Schneider and first baseman-outfielder Brad Wilkerson -- toured their new home with Gene Orza, the chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players Union. Schneider said it's a "little hard to imagine" what the field will play like, considering he was standing on dirt.

"It's up to us to know our field as best as possible," he said. "It's going to be our home. . . . If there's any advantage to learning the field, we have to know it."

Orza said his main concern was safety, everything from where the players will park to how they'll enter the stadium to "whether there's a pointy object sticking out of the seats that a player could run into and stab himself to death."

Schneider, Wilkerson and Orza left their tour comfortable that there would be no such dangers. They will likely return for another inspection after the field goes in, but, Orza said, "We think it will be a pleasant surprise for most of the other players."

"I loved RFK, I just loved it," Hannan said. "I loved to pitch there, I really did. I know it's not like the newer parks, but I hope these guys love it, too."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company