For Hitters, Not Much to Miss
Friday, September 14, 2007
It hosted Livan Hernandez's fastball for strike one against Arizona's Craig Counsell, the moment -- 7:06 p.m., April 14, 2005 -- when baseball returned to Washington. Its seats along the left field line bounced that summer, thumping to the beat of the Nationals' heady early days, when they were -- gulp -- in first place. It has since hosted dwindling crowds, employed concessionaires who served hot dogs that were, occasionally, prepared al dente, all while the players griped about fly balls that were caught -- homers elsewhere, outs in their home park.
This afternoon, in the cramped clubhouse behind the third base dugout, the Nationals will gather for the final baseball homestand in the 46-year history of RFK Stadium. In the heart of summer, this area emits an unholy stench that stadium workers must knock back by pouring gallons of bleach down drains. Just one reason the thinking among the players is, in general, Good riddance, RFK.
"Blow it up," one said recently.
Publicly, they're a tad more diplomatic about the old stadium, which will continue to be used by D.C. United.
"I think we're looking forward to that new park -- for various reasons," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "RFK's just an old stadium. I've always been a fan of the old stadiums. But at some point, you got to kind of catch up with what's going on."
The Nationals will catch up next spring, trading in RFK -- which was built for $24 million in 1961 -- for a $611 million, as-yet-to-be-named park a mile south of the Capitol in Southeast. Everything there will be different -- the clubhouses (swankier), the field dimensions (smaller), the sight lines (improved), the amenities for fans and players alike (existent), not to mention the parking (not enough).
For the players, though, RFK has meant one thing above all others. It favors pitchers, they say, and just kills hitters.
"Everyone's like, 'Well, it gives you more doubles,' " third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "No it doesn't."
Since 2005, when the Nationals arrived from Montreal, they have a more productive offense on the road, where they average 4.37 runs per game, than at home (4.01). Their batting average (.260 to .252), on-base percentage (.330 to .325) and slugging percentage (.409 to .384) are all higher away from RFK. Only one stadium over the past three seasons -- San Francisco's AT&T Park -- has yielded fewer homers than RFK, which coughs up an average of 1.63 per game. Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, by contrast, allowed 2.96 homers per game in that same span.
Kearns has seen both extremes. He spent the first 4 1/2 years of his major league career in Cincinnati, where he averages a homer every 22 at-bats, then came to RFK in a midseason trade in 2006. Here, he averages a homer every 34 at-bats.
"It's weird," Kearns said. "Sometimes, I guess you can laugh at it. It's kind of funny, and you joke about it. Other times, it'll [tick] you off."
Early in 2006, then-second baseman Jose Vidro and then-team president Tony Tavares -- who oversaw the daunting task of turning RFK back into a major league ballpark in six months -- had a screaming match because Tavares hadn't moved the fences in following 2005.
"It's tough on everyone when the stadium is so big," Vidro, now with the Seattle Mariners, said earlier this month. "It's always in your head."
Added Mariners right fielder Jose Guillen, a National in 2005-06: "You try not to let it get into your head, but it got into mine. It's just not fair when you hit a ball that should be a home run, and it dies at the track."
Guillen, though, was occasionally on the other end of that equation. "Chipper Jones, 2005," Nationals closer Chad Cordero said. "Guillen caught one right at the top of the wall. Anywhere else, the game would have been tied."
Thus, the memories of the flip side. The Nationals' ERA at home the last three seasons is 4.07. On the road, it's 4.88. The difference is more than twice as much as the average during that time (.40 runs), and only three clubs -- Tampa Bay, San Diego and St. Louis -- have a greater home/away discrepancy. Thus, the thought has occasionally occurred to Nationals pitchers: Will their stats be worse in the new ballpark?
"It's not going to be as pitcher-friendly as RFK is," Cordero said, "but you can't worry about how big or small it is."
Which brings us to the pertinent question, as the final 10 games at RFK begin: How will the new park play?
"Fair," General Manager Jim Bowden said, whose staff has done some studies. Team president Stan Kasten, though, nearly cut Bowden off in his assessment.
"The truth is, we don't know," Kasten said. "I was there [last month], and the wind was blowing out. What does that mean? How will it blow through the openings? We won't know until we get in there."
We do, however, know the dimensions. The left- and right-center field power alleys at RFK are marked as 380 feet from home plate. They were mis-marked in 2005, and the "380" signs moved, after two Post reporters measured one alley, finding it was closer to 395 feet. The new park will measure 364 feet in left-center, 377 in right-center, but basically the same down the lines.
There is, too, the matter of amenities. The Nationals' home clubhouse is smaller than the majority of visiting clubhouses. Cordero, standing in the visitors' clubhouse last week at Atlanta's Turner Field, said, "Just the clubhouse here is as big as our whole training room, food room, everything."
Thus, even as the Nationals' marketing department pulls down a large number in left field over the final homestand -- 10 games will turn to 9 tonight -- as a means of stirring nostalgia, the Nationals themselves won't be shedding tears.
"I think everyone's going to be happy about it -- us, the fans," Zimmerman said. "Who wouldn't want to go into a new stadium? It's time."
Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.