By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 24, 2007
When the ballpark closed to baseball the first time all those years ago, it did so in sheer chaos, with countless among the 14,460 in the stands spilling onto the field, ripping up the grass, forcing a forfeit loss to the New York Yankees. Baseball was leaving the District. There was no telling if it would ever return.
But yesterday, below a brilliant blue sky, 40,519 made their way to the beat-up concrete yard known as RFK Stadium, the largest crowd of the season wishing their Washington Nationals well. So much had changed since 1971. Baseball is back to stay, and the park buzzed. Home plate wasn't ripped out by hooligans but rather dug out by team owner Theodore Lerner and Manager Manny Acta in a fitting postgame ceremony. And the home team won, taking a 5-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies that allowed all those fans to file out wearing smiles that were absent a generation ago.
RFK, which will remain the home of D.C. United, is tattered and tired. But had it not been standing on East Capitol Street when the Montreal Expos needed a new home following the 2004 season, baseball might never have come back.
"This place was our first home in D.C.," said closer Chad Cordero, who survived yet another tortuous ninth inning to pick up his 36th save -- his 61st at RFK. "Without RFK, who knows where we would be? We might still be in Montreal. We could be somewhere else.
"This place has treated us well. We have some great memories here. The whole '05 season was awesome. And we have some bad memories."
Thus, yesterday's theme of transition was easily identifiable. The pregame ceremony featured eight former Washington Senators -- including slugger Frank Howard, whose titanic home runs into the upper deck are still marked by white seats. Current Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman took the field with the 6-foot-7 Howard, who towered above him. And as Zimmerman soaked in the thunderous ovation for the man once known as the "Capital Punisher," he got a sense of Howard's power and the history he has here.
"Now I can kind of believe those white seats a little bit more," Zimmerman said.
For the entirety of the final homestand, the Nationals spoke more about the relief they'll have when they get to the new ballpark in Southeast, one that will have the amenities modern ballplayers expect. But the fact that so many fans came out on a perfect fall afternoon showed that there are those who respect the history of baseball in the nation's capital, one that was rekindled at RFK in 2005.
"Most of these kids are a lot less than 40 years old," said Dick Bosman, a Senators right-hander from 1966 to '71. "How the hell are they going to know? Coming in '05 to be part of the opener was really, really nice. But this is even nicer, because it brings closure to this place basically the way it ought to."
The Nationals brought closure in an appropriate manner, too. For three nights, they had hoped to push the Phillies further back in the race for the National League East title only to keep them in the race by losing. Yesterday, though, they hung in against Phillies lefty Cole Hamels, trailing 2-1 after 5 1/2 innings.
In the sixth, with erratic Philadelphia reliever Antonio Alfonseca in, they rallied. A leadoff double from D'Angelo Jimenez, one booted by right fielder Jayson Werth, allowing Jimenez to go to third. A walk to Ronnie Belliard. A one-out, game-tying single from Austin Kearns -- who finished his home season by going 3 for 4. And then Tony Batista walked, loading the bases.
"We're short in certain things," Acta said, "but not in desire and determination."
With that, Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel pulled Alfonseca for right-hander Geoff Geary, who came on to face rookie catcher Jesus Flores. Geary missed with his first pitch, then got Flores to swing through his second. He came inside at 1-1. The ball plunked Flores on the left elbow.
"I can do nothing about it," Flores said, smiling. "But it helped."
It drove in the run that made it 3-2, though Flores had to be replaced defensively -- he is listed as day-to-day. The Nationals tagged on a pair of runs in the eighth to go up 5-2.
That left it to the human heartburn that is Cordero. Back in 2005, he got the Nationals' first save at RFK, nailing down a victory for Livan Hernandez on the night baseball came back. So many in the crowd had been pulled in so many directions by Cordero's hair-pulling outings over the past three years, it was somehow appropriate he allowed the Phillies to get to 5-3 on Aaron Rowand's single, bringing the winning run to the plate with one out.
"With Chief," said catcher Brian Schneider, "I've learned over the years not to get worried."
Lerner, the owner, stood in the tunnel in the dugout, waiting for the postgame ceremony. Acta glanced at him.
"I'm like, 'Come on, Chief. The guy's 81 years old,' " Acta said. "He doesn't need to be put through this."
With that, Cordero closed out the game, and closed RFK for baseball. He struck out Wes Helms, then struck out Werth. Schneider greeted him at the mound, wrapped his arm around Cordero's head. They headed for their final handshake with teammates, then to the ceremony afterward. Several players spoke to the crowd. A video montage of this year's highlights played on the scoreboard -- one that will be dwarfed by the high-definition version next year.
"I don't want to downplay it at all," veteran reserve Robert Fick said. "But we're so happy to get out of here and be able to go to a new stadium."
But first, they had to close the old one, and they did so in a way that left 1971 -- and baseball's departure -- even further behind.