If the new owner of the Washington Nationals wants to know how to do a quick, cheap and fabulous short-term renovation of RFK Stadium, all he needs to do is come to Busch Stadium and shamelessly copy everything that the Cardinals did in the late 1990s to salvage a boring, symmetrical '60s dump of a park that is virtually an architectural duplicate of RFK.
What the Cards did here wasn't a permanent cure, just a temporary bandage. But the results are as stunning to the eye as they are cheap on the owner's wallet. However, anybody who wants to take a gander at the old Busch Stadium better hurry because, within days of the Cards' last playoff game here, the joint will be demolished so the new Busch Stadium -- which will look like the retro parks in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati -- can be completed. Most of the new park is finished but left field of the new Busch can't be completed until right field of the old Busch is knocked down. That's how close they are.
Before anybody says, "Oh, so a facelift of RFK would produce a great park," just go take a cold shower. The Cardinals are getting a new park because old Busch just isn't good enough anymore. Times and tastes have changed. And without the revenue from obscene modern luxury boxes, how can you compete for $10-million-a-year, .260 hitters with occasional power?
Nobody would spend more than $350 million to build a new park here if they thought the old Busch was adequate to the future of a contending team. In fact, the new Busch is being constructed despite the fact that it's economic impact on downtown will be minimal compared to the enormous benefits that the original Busch Stadium brought to this city when it arrived in 1966 as part of the Jefferson Expansion. That huge urban renewal project, similar in scope to Washington's current Anacostia ambitions, transformed one of the city's most dangerous, dilapidated areas into a prosperous downtown connected to the Gateway Arch.
Nonetheless, for the Nats to maintain their hold on their new fans, especially if "unexpected" delays prevent a new Anacostia park from opening until 2009, then an RFK renovation that uses Busch Stadium as its blueprint would be money quickly recouped by ownership and a restoration achievement that would probably stun most Washington fans.
The next time the Cardinals play at home this postseason, look at the panoramic TV shots of Busch Stadium. Then smack yourself in the face. Believe it or not, that's what RFK could look like with one major offseason overhaul. Here's what you do:
* Get rid of RFK's excess foul territory and add four rows of premium box seats in front of the field boxes. From the upper deck, you can see exactly where that's been done here. How expensive can four rows of seats be, especially when you sell them for $5,000 each per 81-game season? Yes, you have to move the dugouts forward 12 feet. Big deal.
* Move the bullpens to left-center and right-center fields and wrap the "lower reserved" seats around into left and right field. This creates the kind of quality outfield seats, perched 20 feet above the field, but fitting below the upper deck, that Busch has.
* In deep left- and right-center fields, install old-fashion backless bleachers. Sell 'em cheap at prices any family or kid can afford. Next to those bleachers, put in two areas directly above the bullpens with picnic-style tables and chairs. The Cards called these '96 additions the Family Pavilion and the Homer's Landing picnic area.
* High in the RFK upper deck in the remote 500 sections between the current 380-foot signs, rip out every seat -- several thousand of them. They are the worst in the park. Get rid of 'em. (But leave the upper deck 400-level seats all the way around the park.) In place of the old seats, replicate the 17-foot-high-by-270-foot-wide, hand-operated scoreboard and flag decks of Busch. The Cards also have signs and retired numbers commemorating past Cardinal players and teams.
This project is so cheap and easy that it's almost a joke. The huge upper-deck displays in Busch look like they're made out of plywood -- cheesy, corny, colorful and cheerful. And they have absolutely transformed the visual impact of this stadium. The image of the "cookie cutter" stadium is obliterated. Sure, an "open" park with a cityscape would be far better. But this works. You wouldn't believe the change it would make in RFK, especially if every seat in the park was freshly painted one color, like the Cards' red. Perhaps Washington could use the deep blue in the Nats' hats. Or steal the Cards' red. Who's going to know? Nobody is going to say that RFK looks "just like Busch Stadium" because by next Opening Day, Busch will be rubble and dust.
* Finally, add a few more innocent, cheap touches. Put a grass sward in center field as a hitter's background. It's handsome. Improve the current RFK "luxury boxes" just as Busch has done. No, they're not luxurious. But apparently there are people dumb enough to buy every one of 'em. Sorry, there are sufficient fans who desire a sense of privacy and personal service.
There are other minor touches. The lower-deck seats in the corners can be cocked so that they look directly at home plate, like those in Camden Yards and every other new park. The old multi-purpose stadiums were badly aligned for baseball.
How much would all this cost? I don't know. But if somebody gives me a check for $25 million, I bet I can hire the whole job out and still make a fat profit. Ripping out old seats, adding a few rows of field boxes, constructing a huge visual display in the upper deck -- little of any of it even requiring electricity ("hand-operated") -- can't cost much. Building no-back "bleachers" and picnic-style "patios" -- give me a break, that's peanuts.
The only significant cost would probably be wrapping the lower-reserved level around into the outfield to create perhaps 5,000 new permanent seats as they did here. Okay, don't do that. Maybe the Cards were looking at a five-year payback on that. So concoct something cheaper. Why not outfield hillsides where any ticket-holder can lie in the grass and watch the game?
All that matters, as Busch proves, is that you must demolish the visual monotony of the '60s-style multi-purpose stadium. And to do it, you just have to deconstruct then recreate what the fan sees beyond and above the outfield fences. Nothing else -- none of the 35,000 most expensive seats in RFK -- needs to be touched. The treatment can be flags, huge wooden scoreboards and odes to Walter Johnson, Goose Goslin, Roy Sievers and Frank Howard. It can be a "water" feature. Drape huge swaths of Nats-colored bunting or flags from the outfield roofline that blow in the breeze. For two or three years until a new park is built, at a time when you're just trying to prove to your fans that you are trying to improve their experience, almost anything will suffice as it's simple, inexpensive and tasteful.
Nobody expects a new owner to spend big bucks on a stadium he's about to leave. But Busch Stadium, as soon as new ownership replaced the Busch family in 1996, went from old and boring to darn attractive in just one year. On a tight budget.
So, in a few weeks, when that new Nats owner gets named (now stop that laughing) those lucky folks should get out here quick. You only get to mine a new market once. The Nationals' years in RFK before a new park is built -- even if it is only two seasons -- is a vital time to build a core fan base. If the aesthetics of RFK can be improved half as much as the '96-to-'97 transformation of Busch Stadium, the long-term value to the Washington franchise and its owners may be huge.