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A Field Grows in Washington

New Sod Transforms the Old Stadium for Nationals' Arrival

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page B01

Strip by strip, day by day, workers on their hands and knees meticulously laid sod at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium until they were ready yesterday afternoon to cover the final patch of dirt in right field.

Roger Bossard, chief consultant overseeing the effort, dropped his rake and beheld his creation: Under clear, cool skies, the field -- for months a swath of mud -- was a burst of lush green, behind which rose a large outfield wall that workers were painting a shade called "tall evergreen."

The field at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium is nearing completion for its Washington Nationals debut at an April 3 exhibition game. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

To onlookers, the image delivered an unmistakable message: For the first time since the early 1990s, when an exhibition game was played there, the venerable old stadium looked fit for baseball.

"It's like a mini-Green Monster," Tony Robinson, spokesman for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, joked of the evergreen-colored wall. He was referring to the landmark 37-foot-high left field wall in Boston's Fenway Park. At RFK, the tall wall will not be in the playing field: A smaller fence will be constructed in front so bullpens can be built in between.

For the Washington Nationals, the grass also holds a promise. In its previous life as the Montreal Expos, the team played home games on Olympic Stadium's artificial turf, an unforgiving surface commonly believed to contribute to injuries.

"Turf takes its toll on you. Guys end up with nagging injuries at the end of the year," Jamey Carroll, a Nationals infielder, said yesterday at spring training in Viera, Fla. "Grass is easily better for your body. We're glad we're playing on grass."

As the final patches of grass were laid, other workers were busy installing new lights, mounting electronic ribbon boards and wiring a hydraulic pitching mound that can disappear into a hole in the earth when the D.C. United soccer team takes the field.

The Hall of Stars, once a collection of large placards bearing names of Washington sports legends along the second-deck facade, will be reborn as one large banner on the outfield wall, officials said.

The pitching mound, packed clay on a steel plate, weighs 18,000 pounds, and officials nixed their original idea of having it lifted by a crane into a trailer before soccer games because the enormous equipment could damage the field. So a team of engineers, architects, electricians and even NASA scientists created the hydraulic lift. It will be operated from a box in the third base dugout -- a box that will be locked during games, lest an opposing team's manager gets a crazy idea while a Nationals pitcher is at work.

"When they lower the mound, we have a platform that conforms to the mound. Then we put two inches of sand on it and lay the sod over that," said Lane Welter, an architect for HNTB, which designed the renovation effort. "When they play soccer, you won't even know [the hole] is there."

Although not quite as high-tech as the mound, the sod has its own story.

Officials had planned to buy the product at a nearby farm, but recent cold weather prevented the grass from growing lush. So Bossard, chief groundskeeper for the Chicago White Sox, who is overseeing the process at RFK as a consultant, chose to buy the sod from Southern Turf Nursery in Tifton, Ga.

For the technically inclined, the sod is 111,000 square feet of sand-based hybrid Bermuda grass overseeded with perennial rye. In layman's terms, that means the rye, which is green during cooler weather, will burn out in the hot summer months and give way to the brilliance of the Bermuda, Bossard said.

Yesterday, sprinklers kept the grass moist, and Bossard was implanting ammonium nitrate into the soil to add four to five degrees in temperature to reach the ideal of roughly 63 degrees.

Soon, the same kind of clay used by the Baltimore Orioles, manufactured by Egypt Farms in White Marsh, Md., will be spread on the base paths, and the white bases will be anchored.

By the time the Nationals take the field, Bossard said, groundskeeper Jimmy Rodgers will have put on the final touch: a signature cut design in the grass.

"Every groundskeeper has his own style," said Bossard, who favors a straightforward striped pattern. "Jimmy has his own pattern, but I can't tell you what it is yet."

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report from Viera, Fla.

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