A Place for Goodbyes

Fans headed to RFK Stadium on Tuesday during the Nationals' final homestand after a three-year run.
Fans headed to RFK Stadium on Tuesday during the Nationals' final homestand after a three-year run. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By William Gildea
Sunday, September 23, 2007

At the previous goodbye, the sky was dark and the mood below seemed even darker. It was Sept. 30, 1971, and we were saying goodbye to baseball at RFK Stadium. The Senators had announced they were moving to Texas. What made it worse was the specific destination, Arlington, a town few people around here had heard of. Shirley Povich wrote that Arlington's only claim to fame was that it was equidistant from Dallas and Fort Worth. During the ninth inning of the last game, hundreds of angry and disappointed fans ran onto the field, stole away with the bases and tore up chunks of turf, forcing the umpires to award a forfeit to the Yankees. It was a bitter goodbye.

Now it's time for us to say goodbye again to baseball at RFK. Of course, this goodbye can be taken with a smile. The incumbent Nationals won't be moving across the country after their last home game today but only a matter of city blocks to a new stadium, scheduled to open next season. As a rule, our baseball goodbyes in Washington are not this easy.

In 1960, we said goodbye to the original Senators, a charter member of the American League. Owner Calvin Griffith was of such a mind to leave that he never looked back to a stadium with his family name on it. It was a team with Harmon Killebrew, who already had won his first home run title, and several more promising players. Five years later they won the pennant as the Minnesota Twins, who played in Bloomington, Minn. Bloomington? Arlington?

The new Senators were not very good, but beginning in 1962 at least they got to play in a new stadium that was hailed as state of the art. And in 1965 another home run king, Frank Howard, became part of a Washington team -- and soon part of our lives. He did not hit home runs as often as Killebrew, but he could hit them even farther. We can remember them to this day merely by looking to the white-painted seats in RFK's center field upper deck, which mark the spots where Howard's blasts landed. But those hits only compounded our woe when we had to say goodbye.

Howard did what he could to make us feel better. During the last game, he slammed a ball off the left field bullpen wall for one final home run. With uncharacteristic emotion, he waved his batting helmet and during two curtain calls blew us kisses. His personal goodbye momentarily brightened the gloom, never mind the reports that the Yankees' Mike Kekich grooved the pitch.

There had even been another goodbye that season, the oddest of all: It was delivered by Curt Flood. Coaxed out of retirement by team owner Bob Short, Flood realized after just 13 games that he had left his glory days in St. Louis. He vanished from RFK, flying off to Europe. Before takeoff, he sent a telegram to Short: "I tried. A year and one-half is too much. Very serious personal problems mounting every day. Thanks for your confidence and understanding. Flood."

As for Short, he wisely didn't stick around at season's end to say goodbye.

It's easier to think of hellos, and RFK offered those, too.

When Ted Williams returned to baseball as Senators manager and was introduced at RFK on Opening Day 1969, he jogged to home plate and then -- he tipped his cap. He didn't doff it, nothing demonstrative. He pulled gently on the bill, for him a remarkable gesture.

During his playing days in Boston, Williams refused to acknowledge the fans in this traditional, gentlemanly manner. He declined even after he hit a home run in the last at-bat of his career. John Updike, who was there to watch it, wrote about it in "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu": "Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs -- hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap . . . Gods do not answer letters."

On April 14, 2005, the Nationals said hello. And now comes the prospect of another big hello with the opening of Washington's new ballpark. Ironically, we hardly got to know RFK as a home for baseball -- it has been played there only 13 seasons, only one winning season. This goodbye, wistful as it may be, haunting for what went unfulfilled, comes with promise: See you in the spring.

William Gildea was a Post staff writer from 1965 to 2005.

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