A 'Final' Farewell After So Many Others
Today, the third and last time Phil Hochberg attends a "final game" at RFK Stadium, he won't be working for the home team, as he did when the Senators split town, or wearing a tuxedo, as he did when the Redskins traded up to spiffier digs.
This time, when the Washington Nationals play their last game at RFK and the countdown toward inevitable demolition begins, Hochberg will be on hand as a fan to say goodbye to a building that has won little love, seen remarkably few great sports achievements and yet has somehow ginned up the kind of memories that stick with grown-up kids for all their days.
"There's nothing pleasantly memorable about the stadium," says Hochberg, who landed the job of public-address announcer for the Senators when he was 21, in 1962, the first season for both that expansion team and what was then called D.C. Stadium. "It had no distinctive physical attributes. Nobody ever hit a ball out of the stadium. There was never a no-hitter. But there are great memories from the games themselves."
When the stadium opened in October 1961, an unimpressive crowd of 36,767 watched the Redskins lose to the New York Giants, 24-21 -- the Skins' 11th straight loss. Hard as it may be to imagine, The Washington Post's reporter that day called the facility "magnificent." Fans oohed at the electronic message board featuring five lines of lights that could wish a kid a very public happy birthday. Critics aahed at the swooping roofline, so daringly modern, with lights embedded in the roof because the Fine Arts Commission, defenders of the capital's skyline, nixed the idea of light towers.
The Senators being genetically incapable of success, no post-season baseball game was ever played at RFK. But two All-Star Games were staged there, in 1962 and 1969, and the Redskins played in four NFL championship games, in 1972, '83, '88 and '92. But as fans reminisce, the memories have been less about shining moments in Skins or Senators history than about other events:
The Beatles played RFK on their final U.S. tour in 1966, drawing 32,000 fans; you could buy an upper-deck seat for $4. The Rolling Stones (appearing with Stevie Wonder) shook the place in a July 4th concert in 1972 that Mick Jagger later described as "pretty frightening and a bit weird . . . people sitting on the stage, grabbing at your legs, getting tangled in the mike cables." There were more than 60 arrests.
In the '80s, when Washington had no baseball team, Cracker Jack sponsored an annual Old Timers game, and in 1982, the great Chicago White Sox shortstop Luke Appling hit a home run -- at age 75, lifting the ball more than 250 feet off fellow Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, then 61.
RFK -- the first and now the only survivor among the cookie-cutter stadiums whose awfulness led to the rash of retro-funky, Camden Yards-style ballparks built in the '90s -- sat mostly idle after the Senators moved to Texas in 1971. The U.S. Football League's Federals, who played here for two summers in the '80s, were so bad their owner called them "a bunch of trained gerbils." Federals quarterbacks threw a combined 65 interceptions but only 45 touchdowns.
The Washington Diplomats of the North American Soccer League -- their cheerleaders were the Honeydips -- lasted a bit longer, from 1974 to 1981, but, like today's D.C. United soccer squad, struggled to attract fans. Despite one moment of glory, a 1979 game against the New York Cosmos that drew more than 50,000 fans, average attendance never topped 19,000.
The Nationals and the city will stage a farewell tribute today, but officially, the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission plans "to continue our relationship with D.C. United for next year and beyond," says spokesman Chinyere Hubbard. The contract with United -- "our only tenant," Hubbard says -- expires in December.
The city is scouting around for other events to book at RFK. Such as? "Nothing specific," Hubbard says. "We're just looking." She says there are no immediate plans to blow up the stadium, but Mayor Adrian Fenty told me this year that he expects United to move to a smaller, soccer-only facility, at which point RFK would have a date with a pile of dynamite.
How will fans react to the end of an era? In 1971, as the Senators led the Yankees 7-5 in the ninth inning of the final game, fans poured onto the field and ripped out the turf. Washington forfeited the game, so the record book shows a 9-0 loss. In 1996, thousands grabbed fistfuls of grass after the Redskins won their final victory at RFK, beating Dallas, 37-10.
I'll miss RFK's pre-greed spaciousness, the luxurious legroom, friendly ushers, the relaxed policy about letting kids visit the big-money seats to seek player autographs. Above all, I'll miss the RFK bounce, the sections that literally rock up and down when juiced fans start jumping.
The new stadium will surely be impressive (and expensive). It will have a scoreboard you can read. Better sightlines, a link to the city's waterfront and the promise of a new entertainment district.
But RFK, rotting, neglected pit that it is, will grow to be magnificent in memories. For Hochberg, it will always be where he announced the first baseball game and the last football game. For countless kids, it will be the place where their father first took them to a game. For all of Washington, it will remain the place baseball abandoned and then, miraculously, the place to which it came home.