RFK Is Full Of Concrete Memories
Sometime in the next four days, I'll go to 2400 East Capitol St. SE to say goodbye to RFK Stadium. Don't know when it will be. Don't know how I'll feel. It's hard to believe that a big old beautiful dump of a park can be so much a part of your life. How can we both appreciate everything it's provided in the last 46 years, yet be delighted that we'll never step inside it again?
Nobody was happier than me to see RFK open in 1961. And nobody will be happier to see it close to baseball on Sunday. In the years between, few got more pleasure from the stadium than I did, from its early days as a praised and copied modernist vision to its dilapidated end as a serviceable eyesore. RFK gave me a million memories, not one of them bad, from the old Senators to the new Nats, from U2 to 35 years of Redskins games. Thanks. But enough was enough long ago. Lemme outta here!
Your whole life probably shouldn't be interlaced with one sports venue, but mine seems to be. With so many games in various sports played there in the last five decades, countless fans have a similar sense of that abundant feeling, an interplay between an utterly familiar place, comfortable repeatable pleasures and unexpected spontaneous memories. Just the letters "RFK" seem to set off a free-association mechanism in our minds.
The huge white stadium with its flowing exterior lines arrived in town -- like the world's largest birthday present -- when I was 13. There might as well have been a banner over the entrance that said "To Tommy." D.C. Stadium, as it was called then, sat just 17 blocks from my parents' rowhouse in Northeast. It landed, like a flying saucer full of sports, just a quick bike pedal from my doorstep. Maybe I never got over the initial joy and that explains all the rest.
On warm Sunday afternoons in the '60s, I'd come early enough for batting and fielding practice so I'd be sure to see the best of the Senators, even if only in their drills. Perhaps they knew it. If Eddie Brinkman and Paul Casanova didn't have the strongest shortstop and catching arms in the league, then they sure loved to show off for their fans because they made "infield" look like ballet. Then I'd watch Claude Osteen and Tom Cheney, or Dick Bosman and Joe Coleman, lose both ends of a doubleheader to the Yanks or Red Sox, albeit sometimes with a modicum of dignity. During school months, I'd be sure to take a math book, certain that at least one game would be more boring than algebra homework.
Over the years, the recollections became a mountain. One night, three teenage friends and I brought a hand-cranked siren into the empty upper deck and made an obnoxious ruckus, then ran, flattering ourselves that we were being chased by some unseen authority other than conscience. As a fan, I saw one of Frank Howard's white-seat homers (the middle one). I leaned from the first row of the left field upper deck at the '69 All-Star Game to see a Willie McCovey home run smash through the face of the center field clock, the ball presumably decaying inside, unclaimed for years.
The first time I ever was in the RFK press box, as a Post "copy boy," I scrambled after a foul ball hit by Willie Horton, eventually subdued it, then turned to show it proudly to my liege, the Post's dapper veteran baseball writer George Minot Jr. -- who was covered in the coffee I'd knocked all over him.
By '71, I was allowed to interview an actual Senator -- second baseman Lenny Randle. So, no coffee in sight, I wandered onto right field at RFK during batting practice to ask him my questions. "I don't think you're supposed to be out here," he said.
Since then, it is impossible for me to conjure any RFK moment that doesn't make me smile -- from the Redskins' 26-3 win over Dallas on New Year's Eve 1972 to reach the Super Bowl, to meeting soccer greats such as Johan Cruyff, who played for the pro team in Washington that went belly-up long before the champion United arrived.
Even those demeaning exhibitions at RFK to drum up support for baseball in Washington had their moments. At age 75, Luke Appling hit a home run off Warren Spahn in an old-timers game, his ball barely clearing the 250-foot fence in left field. Spahn chased him around the bases, hitting him with his glove. The vignette got national attention. A year later, Appling returned, proud that he'd gotten more fan mail than he'd received in his whole Hall of Fame career. It took him months to answer every letter by hand.
Over a third of a century, I've seen baseball come full circle at RFK. In '71, I wrote a sidebar about the Senators' pathetic last-season crowds: "The lines at the ticket booths before last night's game were two abreast and one deep." In one inning, I counted the entire crowd. By the summer of '05, with the Nationals in first place, crowds during one six-week pennant race stretch averaged more than 38,000 a game at RFK. As it has turned out, my favorite RFK moments are almost too fresh to be called memories, because they've arrived since baseball returned here three seasons ago.
Without RFK, with its big league pedigree and 45,000 seats, major league baseball never could have moved the former Expos here on short notice in '05. So, as we await the new $611 million ballpark on the Anacostia waterfront, we should never forget to thank fading, funky RFK, which still will be home to D.C. United. Sure, its cylindrical design -- like other stadiums built in the '60s and '70s -- was perfectly suited to watching football, but so antiseptic, remote and inhospitable for viewing baseball that Camden Yards, and every other retro park, were built in an attempt to create intimate, quirky ballparks that were in almost every way the aesthetic opposite of RFK.
Several times this season, when I've been one of the last people to leave RFK around midnight, I've left by the only exit that's still open -- the one at field level in the right field corner. You can still hear the cleaning machines and see the work crews, like specks in the upper deck. The light towers are on half-power. Every time, something pulls me from the grungy underbelly of the decaying park out onto the warning track underneath the foul pole.
From there, the stadium rises above you with a monumental architectural confidence, a 360-degree sweep that takes your breath away as though you were at the bottom of a magnificent, multihued canyon. And if the moon hangs above, it's just a little too much. There is no other spot in the stadium that has comparable drama, where RFK's distinctive swaying roofline asserts itself so much. I doubt that in our new park, which will have 4,000 fewer seats, there will be any one perspective so magnificent, so equal to the city's other alabaster icons. Everything in the park in Southeast will, perhaps, be newer, more various and energizing and designed to flatter baseball's more intimate and human dimensions.
But something will be lost. On those nights when RFK, in a half-light that mutes the flaws of age, towered over me and surprised me with its power, we had our natural farewell. Good luck, in these last four days, as you seek your own.