Wrigley Field is too small and gets real dark at night. Fenway Park has little parking and no sky boxes. Yankee Stadium is in a crime zone. Soldier Field maximizes every lousy Chicago weather condition. Some say Tiger Stadium is falling down. The Los Angeles Coliseum has some of the worst seats in creation.
If the men whose teams play in these parks had their way, every one of them would be torn down and some sleek, antiseptic profit-factory -- with more seats and ritzy boxes, with domes and plastic grass -- would replace them. To an owner, a ballpark has seen its most useful days as soon as it gets the first wrinkle. Good is never good enough. Only new and expensive -- constructed with public money -- fits the bill.
What these great old parks have -- and a price is never put on it until too late -- is tradition. You can't buy it by floating a bond issue. And once it's gone, you've lost it.
Tradition means that Gale Sayers broke seven tackles right there going up that sideline. Deacon Jones has to bleed on the grass. Lou Gehrig has to say his farewell at that home plate. And Ernie Banks has to look at the summer sky and the old hand-operated scoreboard and say, "Let's play two."
Tradition is sentimental, intangible and highly perishable. It's as hard to justify to a bottom-line guy as a word like friendship or loyalty. It's as amorphous as a sense of values.
Tradition, the Washington Redskins' kind, is what RFK Stadium has, too.
George Allen licked his thumb and tugged his cap right there. A few yards away, Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen would hobble past each other -- hard to tell which one was injured each time. That's the mushy turf where Larry Brown hurdled tacklers and Bobby Mitchell burned DBs with yet another hitch-and-go. Could we ever see the Riggo drill in our mind's eye in any other place? Don't we remember the spot where No. 44 took his full bow from the waist after the Vikings were finally sunk in January 1983?
To Redskins fans -- that is, to Washingtonians -- the fate of RFK Stadium as home of the Redskins ought to matter. So what if the Redskin Band had to sit in goofy end zone bleachers? So what if several thousand seats were lower than you might've liked. My father and I have sat there, behind the end zone, ant-high, missing every play at the other end, with tickets cadged from the friend of a friend. We didn't complain.
All Jack Kent Cooke's arguments for building the Redskins a new home sound so calm and logical. RFK is one of the smallest NFL stadia, with 55,760 seats. A new park might please 20,000 people on the season ticket list. Also, Cooke and a few hundred of his best friends would love those sky boxes. Wouldn't a dome, and, naturally, artificial turf, keep everybody nice and toasty in December?
All together now, "Bah, humbug."
Less than a month ago, several Minnesota Vikings gave their testimony on the value of RFK to the Redskins. A simple paraphrase would be: The crowd helped win the game. Joe Gibbs says just as much every week. The Vikings simply couldn't compose themselves to play a poised game in the teeth of what is universally described as the loudest crowd in the NFL.
With due respect to the fanaticism of my fellow townspeople, isn't it likely that RFK has a lot more to do with the decibel level at Redskins games than the lung power of Washingtonians? Other folks know how to yell. They just don't have little ol' ballparks that hold the noise. The Redskins are 9-1 at home in the playoffs at RFK. If they were, say, 5-5, that might translate into no Super Bowl visits instead of four, no Team of the '80s talk and a lot less Redskins mystique and self-confidence. Franchises should be very careful when they dicker with a winning formula. You never know for sure which variables are essential.
Redskins football in RFK is one of America's best sports spectacles. Walk up the ramps, look west, and there are the Capitol and the Washington Monument all lined up. Chavez Ravine has its San Gabriel Mountains; we have marble mountains. Don't knock it. RFK is as well configured for football as it was clumsily arranged for baseball.
Most important, RFK has memories. Plenty of us with no season tickets in the family nevertheless have our RFK orientation all lined up on our TV screens. We know which goal line reached up and knocked that pass from Darren Nelson's hands. We know where Ken Houston hogtied Walt Garrison. We can see Kilmer sneaking over the top to beat the Cowboys. Yes, there's Charley Taylor, deep up the right sideline, leaving Charlie Waters behind, for the touchdown that iced the Redskins' first Super Bowl visit on New Year's Eve, 1972.
A turf dome in the suburbs just is not the same. It won't be as loud or as intimate. Mark Moseley will never kick a last-second field goal in a snowstorm in Prince William County.
As for building another publicly funded stadium in the District, that ought to be unthinkable, almost an outrage. At the moment, the D.C. school system can't get a measly $1 million -- desperately needed and long overdue -- to bring high school athletics in the District up to a minimal level of safety and decency. To subsidize Cooke to the tune of $100 million-plus ought to get a politician fired, not reelected.
RFK does not have the tradition of several of America's most famous parks. But then RFK only reached voting age in this decade; it's barely an adult. The Redskins have been contenders only since 1971. Give the joint another 17 years to bubble. By then, we'll have listened to a few more teams, like the Vikings, say that the stadium turned the tide in a close game toward the Redskins.
The Redskins aren't going anywhere and their owner knows it. But he's got leverage at the moment and, like the great businessman that he is, it goes against his very nature to pass up a chance to use it. Loudoun County would love to be home to a Cooke Stadium.
Nonetheless, this is the time to point out that the artificial turf isn't always greener on the other side. A new park doesn't mean a better park or a better team or a richer Sunday afternoon experience.
In fact, it could mean a diminished team, an enormous public expense and a needless loss of Washington's richest sports tradition.