keyboard_arrow_uptop

“International flights now boarding at Gate 4…”

That was my friend David, catching his first glimpse of RFK Stadium before
Sunday’s epic tilt between the Washington Nationals and their arch-rival
Arizona Diamondbacks. (Hey, when you’ve only played three home games in
your history, it’s any arch-rival in a storm.) It was the first home day
game in D.C. since 1971, and all Washington was abuzz about the Nationals’ unexpected
place atop the N.L. East standings (not to mention about Vinny Castilla’s
.450 batting average–take your pick which one you think is most likely
to last until May). David and I had made the pilgrimage down I-95 to check out
the newly minted Nats and the new-old stadium that they’ll call home for
at least the next three years.

RFK Stadium was built in 1961 for the expansion Senators–the ones that
became the Rangers, not the ones that became the Twins–and from the
outside it really does look like an airport terminal: all poured concrete
columns and sweeping curves of the sort that seemed modern back in the
days when people still talked about the “space age.” It sits in the middle
of a vast parking lot a mile or so east of the Capitol, a National Guard
armory and a handful of row houses its only neighbors.

Nobody goes to a ballgame to look at the outside of a stadium, though–certain
reporters’ ideas notwithstanding
–and from the inside RFK is …
well, let’s say not quite as aggressively ugly. It’s of the “concrete
donut” generation of multipurpose bowls, but not as generic as a Veterans
Stadium or a Three Rivers. The curve of the stands hugs the baselines ever
so slightly, and the upper decks bulge upwards to provide more seating
behind first and third base, resulting in RFK’s distinctive curved roof.

Actually, the Nats should feel right at home, because if there’s one
stadium that RFK most resembles, it’s Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, if you
blew the roof off of it and installed a grass field. There’s the same concrete
architecture, the same sickly-yellow plastic seats, the same blank
vertical wall beyond the outfield where bleachers should be (here dark
green in place of the Big O’s blue), the same sense that beyond the
donut’s rim, you could be anywhere on the continent.

It didn’t help that the team’s MLB owners look to have taken a
laissez-faire approach to maintaining what they see as temporary digs: The
stadium is badly in need of repainting, and one men’s-room stall turned
out to be the final resting place of a broken light fixture. There’s a new
$5 million sound system, but that’s not exactly a plus, unless your idea
of a good time is having your ears assaulted by 100 dB of Kool and the
Gang.

But as cheerless as what we should probably call pre-Camdenian stadium
design can be, it’s not all bad, either. RFK has just two decks, as opposed
to the three or four that you get in more recent stadiums, and the top
deck is cantilevered over the lower one, casting a couple of thousand
spectators into shadow to benefit a much larger number above: Our seats,
six rows from the back of the upper deck, felt closer to the action than
the front-row upper boxes at a Camden Yards or Jacobs Field. The
cantilevering, combined with the overhanging roof, also makes for a
tightly enclosed space that was reportedly the loudest outdoor stadium in
the NFL when the Redskins played there, something we witnessed first hand
when Nick Johnson launched a two-run triple to deepest center field to tie
the score at three, and the upper deck shook beneath our feet.

(That triple, incidentally, was the longest ball hit all day, despite the
presence on the mound of the uninspiring ex-Yankee tandem of Brad Halsey
and Esteban Loaiza. Earlier in the game, Shawn Green launched a ball that
seemed headed for the Anacostia River, only to have it fall into Jose
Guillen
‘s glove several feet shy of the warning track. Small sample size,
I know, but the expectation that RFK will be a pitchers’ haven looks to be
right on the money.)

RFK has a few other distinctive touches–Wrigleyesque catwalks to take
you from the concourses to the overhanging upper deck, the scattered
outfield seats painted white that remind you that Frank Howard once
launched home runs here–but really, it’s unlikely anyone but us was
paying much attention to this stuff. The real attraction was on the field:
25 major-league baseball players (or, if you prefer, 24 plus Cristian
Guzman
) wearing white “W’s” on their red caps, for the first time in
33-odd years.

The fans, in their freshly bought hideous red-with-gold-drop-shadow
block-type Nationals jerseys–the second agenda item for the new Nats
owners, after sending Jim Bowden packing, should be to get a real uniform
design–seemed a bit bewildered to find themselves with a team, but
unfailingly enthusiastic nonetheless. They cheered the player
introductions; they cheered weak groundouts to the opposing shortstop;
they cheered the lucky-seat winner who successfully answered four
questions that could only loosely be considered trivia (sample: “What
division are the Washington Nationals in?”); they cheered “Screech,”
the bald eagle mascot that emerged from a seven-foot “shell” before the
game, looking like a bedraggled chicken or maybe a stunt double for the
Brooklyn Cyclones’ Sandy
the Seagull
. When Jose Vidro hit a sac fly that brought Washington to
within a 3-1 deficit, about half the crowd rose in a standing ovation.

The crowd’s other notable attribute: No matter where you went in the
ballpark, it was overwhelmingly white, I’d say 95% if not more (the
ethnicity running a distant second appeared to be Japanese). That’s not
unusual for baseball, of course, but it is for D.C., where less
than a third
of the population is white.

This was an undeniably suburban crowd, then, many of them no doubt
recovering Orioles fans from the Maryland suburbs. Witness the scattered
“O!” shouts during the “Oh say does that star-spangled…” stanza of the
national anthem, and the woman in front of me remarked to her seatmate at
one point that with two local teams, “If they play each other, I just
can’t lose!” That could be good news for those who argue that the Nats’
presence will draw suburban wallets to D.C., but it’s got to be bad news
for Peter Angelos, since it could be hard to keep the kids up on I-95 once
they’ve gotten a taste of riding to games on the Metro.

Or maybe not, given that while up the turnpike last weekend, the Orioles
were sweeping the Yanks behind sellout crowds, the RFK games featured
thousands of empty seats down the lines and in the outfield. No matter how
you spin it–it was the Diamondbacks, ticket sales got started late, the
Wizards were playing as well–35,000 fans for a team’s first-ever Sunday
game, on a beautiful spring day that topped 70 degrees, is not exactly
getting off to a rollicking start.

All this would be nitpicking, no doubt, to the thousands of happy fans who
shouted “Let’s Go Nats!” as their team completed a sweep of the dismal
Snakes, then lined up 30-deep outside Metro stations woefully
unprepared for even a modest turnout. I was at the final Expos road game
at Shea Stadium last fall, and the sight of thousands of Montreal
loyalists, clad in powder-blue Tim Raines and Gary Carter jerseys, saying
goodbye to their team forever, was a heartwrenching sight. The slow
execution of the Expos was painful to watch, and will ultimately prove
costly to the D.C. residents who will bear the cost of the deal to bring
the team to Washington, but it’s at least heartening to be reminded that
for every team that dies, a new one is reborn: The cycle of baseball life
continues.

Now if they can just do something about those uniforms.