The real Redskins will be back at RFK tomorrow, and the fans will fill the place again, causing to shake with thunderous stomps the metal decks under those "temporary" sideline seats -- rites of fall in a lucky city.
True, the stadium is showing signs of age, and its principal tenant wants a shiny new toy, and its baseball days and nights are long gone. But has there ever been a sports facility more perfectly placed?
Before we give up on it -- and this is to presume "we" have something to do with it, that the accurate personal pronoun is not "he," as in Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke -- we should consider the inestimable value of its location.
Back in the late 1950s, when after decades of talk plans for D.C. Stadium finally were firmed up, someone somehow made a brilliant decision about where to put it. Maybe this was due to nothing more complicated than the availability of federally owned land -- though swamp might be the better word -- out there by Kingman Lake.
Whatever, it was inspired, almost as if the ghost of L'Enfant had whispered, "Put it there!" This we've all seen for years and years by blimp -- those high, angled television shots of the filled stadium and in the distance the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Arlington hills.
It's a stirring, proud view, and not only for those of us living in and around this city. It's also an ad for Washington that goes out for free to millions of people who, though they may have nothing grander on their minds than heading for the fridge, cannot help but be impressed.
I'm not referring to economic benefits, though doubtless seeds of trips to come are planted by the image. The value here is less specific, more important. Washington is the capital and, not by accident, it's unforgettably beautiful. The little civics lesson on television screens, just a fleeting image of our highest aspirations as expressed in architecture and a city plan, says it well: This is everybody's town.
Charles Atherton, secretary of the Commission of Fine Arts and a man of long and reliable memory, recalls that the commission, established in 1910 as guardian of the McMillan plan, which of course was the invaluable update of L'Enfant, didn't like the proposed stadium site. Or at least some commissioners didn't -- they wanted it pushed off-center, presumably considering it too vulgar a thing to interfere with L'Enfant's high-minded symbolism.
But L'Enfant's ghost knew better, or, anyway, the now-anonymous person or persons who decided that not only should the stadium be centered on the East Capitol Street axis with the Capitol, but also that, with the stadium in its baseball mode, home plate should be set precisely on the center line -- as appealing a bit of democratic symbolism as can be imagined. (A quick friend observed that this transforms Lincoln, sitting in his stupendous chair several miles away, into the ultimate umpire!)
Which brings to mind the notion that the first thing to be done with RFK Stadium (rechristened, of course, in honor of Robert F. Kennedy) is to get a baseball team into it. This is no easy task, to be sure, but it is the one sure remedy for what most ails the place -- vacancy through most of the year.
When the stadium was completed in 1961 it was (hard to imagine now) a sort of marvel, the first of a new breed of multipurpose stadia, meaning, basically, it was designed to accommodate both baseball and football. Though economical, this is not ideal, the shape of the respective playing fields being so different.
But I'm told it was a grand place for baseball, and I know it's terrific for football. Even today, even with the gargantuan leap in team owners' greed, which was only just beginning back then, and even given the nationwide civic craze for high-tech domes, there really isn't so much wrong with RFK that can't be fixed. So for heaven's sake, let's get on with the needed refurbishments to make the place truly convertible for baseball once again. Does it always take 10 years to get something done in this city?
As for the other issue -- building a separate stadium for football -- well, maybe, maybe not. Serious study should first be given to the oft-mentioned possibility of adding seats, along with, yes, tiers of wretched skyboxes for the rich, to RFK. And couldn't that be done this year? Then, if that's not really feasible, or merely not attractive enough for Mr. Cooke, we should examine carefully where to put, and how to finance, a new facility.
Obviously, among the key questions needing answers is: to dome or not to dome? It's expensive, but it dangles the prospect of a Super Bowl and the $100 million or so that once-in-awhile event is said to pump into a local economy. The better question perhaps is: Is it worth it -- not so much in money terms as in costs to the quality of the experience? Or, what's the game of football worth without an occasional snow?
The really crucial issue, besides financing, is location -- and RFK certainly has something to tell us about that. Its road connections are good, its accessibility to Metro is ace and, most of all, it's an integral part of the city. If we build a stadium, it ought to be placed close by the one we have, which is where it wants to be, where it should be, and should stay. Let's keep it.