By Rocco Zappone
Sunday, March 23, 2008
I'VE LONG BELIEVED THAT WE EVENTUALLY GET ALL THE THINGS WE EVER REALLY WANT IN LIFE. It's just that, by the time we get them, we don't really want them anymore. Either we've moved on, or the objects of our desires have changed in ways that make them unrecognizable to us. Whatever the reason, active longing seems to meet fulfillment only rarely and fleetingly.
When Washington lost the Senators in 1971, I was 16, and it was the most traumatic experience of my life to that point. There had been no deaths in the family, no job losses for my father or major illnesses, and losing the Senators was my introduction to the unfairness of life. What had I done to deserve this? What had the people of Washington done? I saved The Washington Post from September 22, 1971, the one with the headline "Short Takes Senators to Texas," just as my family had saved the paper from November 23, 1963, announcing President Kennedy's assassination. But it was years before I could look at it.
Losing baseball was also the beginning of my obsession with the past, one that would take me far beyond Faulkner's assertion that "the past is never dead. It's not even past." As the ensuing springs and summers made clear the extent of my loss, I returned time and again, in my mind's eye, to those languid days at RFK Stadium. With each succeeding disappointment or defeat in life, I became more convinced that everything about the past was better than everything about the present. To me, the past was no longer just hovering in the background; it became something to be grasped at, to be re-created somehow.
For years following the departure of the Senators to Texas, bringing the game back stood in splendid isolation at the top of my wish list. I devoured every morsel of news about the prospects for a return. A congressman from Fresno, Calif., Bernie Sisk, endeared himself to me forever by heading up efforts to bring a team to Washington, though it did him no good with the voters back home. Every Shirley Povich column denouncing the injustice and stupidity of Washington being without a team brought a loud whoop of approval from me. And when it was announced, in 1973, that the San Diego Padres would be moving here the next year, I was as ecstatic as I had ever been.
Maybe if I'd been a little older and more experienced in these matters, I would have been more circumspect. But there didn't seem to be anything tentative about it. This was no pipe dream; they were coming. The anticipation of seeing baseball again at RFK Stadium had me in the clouds for months. I ordered past and present Padres press guides and yearbooks to familiarize myself with my new team. And I wasn't the only one who regarded the move as a certainty. The Topps trading card company printed up 1974 cards for the Padres' players with "WASHINGTON" emblazoned across the top.
Yes, there were some details to be worked out, nothing more. One of these turned out to be the 15 years remaining on the Padres' stadium lease in San Diego. The city of San Diego filed a lawsuit based on the lease that gummed up the process long enough for the city to find a buyer who would keep the team where it was. San Diego's angel:
McDonald's Chairman Ray Kroc.
I had lost another team before it had even gotten here. After the Padres episode, I never trusted any of the reports trumpeting the impending return of baseball to Washington. I also never felt the same about the Big Mac.
I BEGAN TO DEVELOP SERIOUS RESERVATIONS about the general direction of big-time sports. The influence of television had turned stadiums into studios. Rising ticket prices had made a once-democratic form of entertainment that was much like the movies, casual and cheap, into something more akin to the opera, a big night out that had to be planned way in advance. The eventual rise of the "family entertainment" concept at Camden Yards and its progeny reduced the games to mere sideshows, peripheral to the main business of relentless marketing and assaulting the senses with mindless diversions.
I had most definitely moved on. Later, I even decided that I must not have liked baseball all that much in the first place. I had just read too many sappy baseball memoirs and seen too many cornball Hollywood takes on the sport. How could I possibly have cared that much about something that I now regarded with such indifference or even disdain?
So the September 29, 2004, announcement of the Montreal
Expos' impending move to Washington left me cold. Out of some curiosity, I attended the official news conference/pep rally announcing the move, but I did so with a sense of civic obligation. For me, the event was much like the ceremonial day in September 1990 when Washington National Cathedral was officially completed. Both occasions were important days for the city and represented the coming to fruition of epic quests. But as I hovered on the fringes of the jubilant crowd at the baseball conference, I felt an odd sense of detachment. I was genuinely happy for the people who had worked so long and hard to bring this day about, but it was not my day. I was strictly an observer.
Still, I was curious enough about how, after 34 years, RFK would look in a baseball configuration that I attended the new Nationals' first game in Washington, an exhibition against the New York Mets on Sunday, April 3, 2005. The afternoon was so cold and windy that it felt like no baseball day I had ever experienced in Washington. And yet what struck me most forcefully was just how familiar so many things seemed. I sat in Section 516, where I had sat so many times on Sunday afternoons with my father and my uncle, in the upper part of the upper deck directly behind home plate. The first few rows of the section had been replaced by plastic seats, but I sat in one of the wooden ones in Row 5. The yellow paint was peeling, and I could see through to the pale green that I had sat on with my father and uncle. The field was laid out in exactly the same position, and the view from 516 through the far portals of the upper deck in the outfield was identical, too: the banks of the Anacostia, the river where I had played on sandbars at low tide after school as a boy. The weather drove me from the stands before the game was over, something that never would have happened in my days of hard-core fanaticism, but I knew I would be back.
THE OFFICIAL OPENING NIGHT ON APRIL 14, 2005, was a glittering affair that turned into a fantastic game. The problem was the starting time. Let's get one thing straight: There is no Opening Night in baseball. Opening Night is for "Cats" and "42nd Street." In baseball, there should be only Opening Day, and Washington taught the rest of the major leagues how to do it for the better part of a century.
The following Sunday, as the Nationals completed a sweep of their first home series, the weather was warmer and sunnier than it had been two weeks earlier, and my feeling of connection to the past grew stronger. The whole experience was so pleasant that I could even smile at the "hatching" of the team's new eagle mascot, the kind of thing that had driven me from the game in the '90s.
I continued to attend games throughout the opening home-stand. I arrived about an hour early on April 27 and began to walk around the stadium. As I watched the late-afternoon shadows fall on the diamond and the ground crew water the infield and lay down the base lines and batter's boxes, a realization hit me. I really had loved the game. I had to admit that baseball had been the happiest part of a happy childhood. Baseball was the first thing I became aware of beyond my little world of home and school, and the first subject about which my opinions were taken seriously. It was better than the amusement parks at Marshall Hall and Glen Echo. And it was better than summer trips to the Jersey Shore. While I was not an especially good player, I could be an especially good fan. And I had been.
FRUMPY, DUMPY OLD RFK STADIUM was, next to my boyhood home, the dearest place in the world to me. I knew every crack in the ramps leading up to Section 516, and no place felt more comfortable.
It was as if the Dodgers had come back to Brooklyn, and Ebbets Field had still been there. But RFK is no Ebbets Field. No one will ever call it a "lyric little bandbox of a ballpark," John Updike's classic description of Fenway Park, though many people thought RFK was quite beautiful at the time it opened. In its current state, though, with its wonderful physical and technological limitations, a game there can be something more than the delivery system for merchandising and promotions that it is at the retro parks. Its blessedly narrow concourses allow for minimal pushing of souvenirs and food, while the low-tech scoreboard permits relatively little between-innings foolishness -- and what there is I can tune out completely by sitting in one of the pathetic old public address system's marvelous dead spots. The overall effect is the opposite of slick.
I went to the same ticket seller before every game in 2005 -- I'm strictly walk-up, no advance purchase. Then I used the same entry gate, the same ramps and the same men's room before going to my seat. I did not always have the same seat. The downside of not buying tickets in advance was that Section 516 was frequently unavailable. When that happened, I usually ended up between sections 518 and 521, on the third-base side of the upper deck. For most games, I was able to kick back and spread out, approximating the kind of casual experience that a game in the '60s was.
I couldn't help noticing some of the changes. I really missed the old scoreboard in lower right field where you could follow out-of-town scores all day long. And whatever happened to the fungo circles? Didn't anyone hit fly balls to the outfielders in fielding practice anymore? And what about all the balls thrown into the stands by players? That never happened in the old days. Players were charged for the cost of those balls, and, on what they were making then, they couldn't afford it. Now it happened several times every inning. Still, it was baseball at RFK.
BY MEMORIAL DAY, I HAD BEEN TO 15 GAMES. Almost all of them were close, and we were certainly winning our share. (Did I just refer to the Nationals as "we"?) At most games, I found I could go into a sort of baseball zone where I was locked in on every pitch and the outside world fell away.
The team came into one Saturday night game in June riding an eight-game winning streak. Like most in the crowd, I entered the stadium in high spirits that night. But almost as soon as I got through the turnstile, something seemed not quite right. My unease mounted as I took my seat. No one else seemed bothered. What was troubling me?
By the third inning, as the lights began to take hold, shining off players'
batting helmets, I realized what the problem was. Saturday games at RFK were supposed to be played in the afternoon. Through 1968, Saturday games started at 1:30. They were relaxed, intimate affairs with the upper deck closed.
Because my father worked on Saturdays, my mother would take me to those Senators games. My mother didn't claim to be a big fan, but she was curious about this interest that had taken over my life and eager to share it with me. Saturday afternoons provided the perfect opportunity. Saturday afternoon was both Ladies Day and Family Day, meaning that my mother and I each got in for 50 cents. We would sit lower, in Section 316, behind home plate and below the press box.
With my father and uncle, I observed how men interacted with each other when there were no women around, and I made my own tentative attempts to imitate them. Saturday afternoons with my mother involved no initiatory rites; they were just about baseball. Mom could tell that nothing made me happier than a day at the ballpark, and we rarely missed a Saturday game, although it meant she would get a late start on our Saturday night dinner, steak pizzaiola, a labor-intensive dish.
AFTER BUYING THE SENATORS between the 1968 and 1969 seasons, Robert Short proceeded to end Saturday afternoon games. So, I hated him long before he moved our team. I hated him before his trades wrecked the franchise. I hated him before the Senators had played a single game under his ownership.
He fired the terrific radio announcers Dan Daniels and John MacLean, and, worst of all, raised ticket prices to the highest in the major leagues, eliminating most general admission seating. Section 516 had been general admission under Short's predecessors, and tickets cost $1.50 for my father and uncle and 75 cents for me. After Short, the same tickets cost $3 for each of us. The lowest price for any ticket was $2. In Baltimore, where the Orioles would finish 23 games ahead of the Senators, bleacher seats were 75 cents, general admission $1.20, and almost 34,000 of Memorial Stadium's 52,000 seats cost $1.50 or less.
Under the Short regime, general admission was restricted to the upper deck outfield seats. While we occasionally broke down and paid Short's price for seats in the now-reserved 516, we were general admission people, and we usually followed the other lost souls to those awful seats in the outfield, where you couldn't see most home runs or warning-track plays by the outfielders. Those seats made us feel like second-class citizens. What's more, Short posted ushers, sentry-like, at the foul poles to make sure you didn't give yourself an unauthorized seating upgrade. It was the beginning of the kind of rigid stratification now found in the retro parks.
Thinking back on the Short era forced me to acknowledge to myself just how sad the last two years of the Senators had been. We paid exorbitant prices for bad seats to see a pitiful ballclub with an owner we despised, and lived under the constant threat of losing our team. Nevertheless, the Senators were still our team, and when their departure hit the news, none of that softened the blow.
It is hard for me to admit it, but the wild ride that was the 2005 season topped anything from my boyhood memories of the game. Being in playoff contention almost the entire year added a dimension that had never been present for as long as I had been following the Senators, even during the high-water-mark year of 1969, when they won 86 games. Who would have thought that the past could be surpassed?
The truth is, I had been hoping for a series of ice storms that would delay construction of the new stadium long enough to give me one more opener at RFK. As the inaugural season at Nationals Park approaches, I feel much like a teenager in 1945, who, at the death of Franklin Roosevelt, had known only one president. I've known only one home park. RFK is where I learned baseball, and where I had an extraordinary three-year Indian summer in midlife. What now?
Walking along the South Capitol Street side of the new stadium, I note the obvious references to the East Building of the National Gallery of Art. A triangular tower and a sharply angled corner are clear nods to I.M. Pei's masterpiece on the Mall. At first, these touches seem surpassingly odd. Why refer to a structure that is so far away it can't be seen and that serves an entirely different function? This, after all, is a stadium, not an art museum. Before long, though, the point becomes clear: The architects want this to be not just a ballpark, but a beloved landmark. So they've chosen to connect it with the best building erected in Washington in at least seven decades, one that I love almost as much as RFK. You might say one of their architectural forebears is Daniel H. Burnham, designer of Union Station, whose motto was "Make no little plans." I have to admire the brazenness of their ambition.
During the early discussions of possible sites for the new stadium, I ridiculed all the talk about views of the Capitol. Who cared about such trivialities as what you could see outside the stadium? So I wasn't expecting to be stopped in my tracks by the view of the Anacostia River from behind the right field stands. Other stadiums are located near rivers, most notably Pittsburgh's PNC Park, dramatically sited along the Allegheny. But the Anacostia is my river, and nowhere in the District does it look better than it does from here.
When you grow up east of the Anacostia, as I did, the river becomes part of your identity. If you're from Cleveland Park or Palisades or Capitol Hill, you don't say you're from West of the River. But if you're from Anacostia or Penn Branch or Randle Highlands, you're from East of the River, and you never forget it.
As a boy, I thought the Anacostia to be about as grand as a river could be. It might as well have been the Mississippi. Those days when I played on a sandbar with one of my school chums, we were Huck and Jim, and the sandbar was our Jackson's Island.
Then I grew up, and I found out that not only was my river not the Mississippi: It was a joke, a symbol of urban blight, an embarrassment. Early maps of the area even denied its river status. In L'Enfant's plan of Washington, it's referred to only as the Eastern Branch of the Potomac.
From Nationals Park, the Anacostia is every inch a river, broad and expansive, caressed on the opposite shore by the gentle hills of its eastern bank. Here, it holds its own with other urban rivers, including the Potomac. And, from here, I can see why the Nacotchtank Indians, who had been here for centuries when John Smith arrived, chose to live just east of the Anacostia. It may just be that Nationals Park has given me back my river.
Almost everything about the new stadium is undeniably impressive. Maybe too impressive. I wonder if it doesn't have too many focal points, and whether a child coming to a game here for the first time will know where the real action is. That's never been a problem for me. At every baseball stadium I've ever been in, my eye has been drawn immediately to the field. There's just something about a baseball diamond. Football and soccer are both played on large green fields, but neither a gridiron nor a soccer pitch delivers the kind of visual impact that a diamond does. I think it's the swath of infield that runs from first base to third that sets the diamond apart. There is a rural quality about all that dirt. It could be the bend in a country road. For an instant after my first glimpse of a diamond, I feel connected to baseball's pastoral roots. It's 1845, and I'm at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., where organized baseball was first played.
The real measure of Nationals Park will be whether boys and girls who see their first games here come to feel the same affection for this place that I now feel for RFK. Ballparks belong in perpetuity to 8-year-olds. But will a diamond be able to compete for an 8-year-old's attention with such features as the spectacular main scoreboard, the largest that I've ever seen, or the wide main concourse (with its ATMs) that will no doubt house a dazzling array of food and souvenirs, or even the cherry trees that will one day fill a plaza beyond left-center field?
I can only hope that it will.
Rocco Zappone is a Washington writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.