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NOISE FROM THE DUGOUT

Return to RFK
By Tom Goldstein

 

Thirty-four years. That's how long it had been since I'd set foot in Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. But as I walked out of the shadows into the late-afternoon sunshine, all the memories came flooding back. The lush green grass. The huge Longines clock that used to mark time in right-center. The warning track that encircled the field. The expansive power alleys. And mostly, the three seats painted white—Frank Howard seats—dotting the upper decks in left and center. It felt good to be home.

When Bud Selig announced on September 29, 2004, that the Montreal Expos would be transferred to Washington, D.C., my reaction was one of both elation and sadness. I was thrilled that my hometown would finally see the return of Major League Baseball after a thirty-three year absence, yet I was disgusted by the machinations and perfidy that had underscored the efforts to ultimately deprive longtime Expo fans of their beloved franchise. After all, the same kind of process, albeit on a smaller scale, had been used to justify the move of the expansion Washington Senators—my team—to Arlington, Texas, after the 1971 season. And now the long overdue return of baseball to the nation's capital was being achieved not through the logical process of expansion—the Washington metropolitan area has been capable of supporting a major league team for at least twenty-five years—but at the expense of another city, one that had been as loyal to its baseball team as could be expected, given the concerted effort by Selig and the other MLB owners to destroy the Montreal fan base and demonize the city.

To be honest, though, as I gazed out at my childhood field of dreams on this beautiful, warm August 4th day, my thoughts were not with the suffering Expos fans. Nor were they focused on the upcoming game between the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers that would take place later that evening. What gripped me was an impending sense of doom: three years from now, if the politicians get their way, there won't be any more Major League Baseball played at RFK. Instead, the plan is to build a $600 million stadium in nearby Anacostia, a long impoverished neighborhood with lots of available land along its riverfront, that will open in time for the 2008 baseball season.

Unfortunately, I suspect that few Washington-area baseball fans, especially if they were born after 1971, will be troubled by the abandonment of RFK as a baseball venue, once its three-year run as the temporary home of the Nationals has ended. But the loss will bother me.

Place Matters
RFK is where I saw my first major league game, where I first encountered the unique sights and sounds and excitement that can only be found inside a baseball amphitheater. It's where I watched fleet-footed Del Unser chase down long flyballs in center, Ken McMullen charge grounders with the best of them at third, Eddie Brinkman field flawlessly at short, Tim Cullen turn the double play in classic fashion at second, Paul Casanova gun out would-be base-stealers, and Dick Bosman win an ERA title. And it's where I once saw Frank Howard crush a mammoth, five-hundred-foot home run that almost reached the second tier of RFK's distant outfield seats.

I know it's fashionable these days to trash a 1960s multipurpose stadium like RFK as a lousy venue for baseball, but I remain an unrepentant fan of the place. It may not have the intimacy of Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, but its sight lines and seating configuration rival the great majority of "retro" parks that have sprung up in the last decade. (Compared to the piece of crap Bud Selig got built in Milwaukee—and the monstrosity in Chicago that served as host to the World Series—RFK is a gem.) And it's worth noting that the Nationals, playing at forty-four-year-old RFK, outdrew almost two-thirds of the other major league clubs in 2005, including those teams playing their home games at modern stadia in Arlington, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Seattle.

Unfortunately, logic doesn't seem to hold much sway with politicians when the topic is public funding of professional sports stadia, especially in a monopoly situation where Major League Baseball appears to hold all the cards. So, Mayor Anthony Williams and the majority of the D.C. city council bought MLB's bargaining position—that having a team in Washington would require a new, "state-of-the-art ballpark"—and that's what they intend to provide. Never mind that RFK is already supported by a lot of infrastructure, including roads, parking, and a nearby subway stop. Or that taxpayers will foot the bill for this new extravaganza while D.C. schools continue to rank among the worst in the nation. In the high stakes world of stadium blackmail, skewed priorities tend to be the norm. Why should I have expected the results to be any different in Washington?

Redemption and Frank Howard
Prior to this day, I could not recall the last time during the 1971 season that I'd actually attended a baseball game at RFK. I know I was there for Opening Day when Dick Bosman shut out the Oakland A's, 8–0, and a few weeks later when Denny McLain got ejected after arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire. However, there's little else I remember from that turbulent year other than the sad finale on September 30, 1971—the Senators' last game in Washington before being uprooted and moved to Texas. I'd love to report that I turned out for that bittersweet event, a contest in which the Senators led the Yankees 7–5 with two outs in the ninth before overeager fans stormed the field and caused the game to be forfeited. But the truth is that I couldn't bring myself to witness in person the destruction that owner Bob Short had wrought, the loss of a team and the players who had been the heroes of my youth.

In many ways, then, this first visit to RFK since the ninth grade was an attempt to heal those childhood wounds, to literally reclaim my baseball soul. So I spent quite a bit of time just roaming the aisles and concourses and seating sections, trying to remember what it felt like to be a kid in love with a largely mediocre baseball team. Eventually my wandering led me to the far reaches of the outfield stands, to those white seats in the upper deck that signify where three of Frank Howard's moonshots came to Earth so many decades ago.

I think it's hard for people who never saw Howard play to appreciate just how significant his mammoth home runs were in an era in which the words "steroids" and "human growth hormone" weren't a regular part of the vocabulary. When I was a kid, the 6'7", 255-pound Howard was the Senators, and knowing that on any given day he might crush a baseball five hundred or more feet kept you interested in the fate of what was usually a lackluster club. Like Mark McGwire before the steroid revelations, Howard was a larger-than-life figure who captivated the interest of probably every kid who ever laid eyes on him. He hit line drives that sounded like rifle shots off the bat, and he was easily the most feared slugger of his time.

But you don't really get an appreciation for Howard's strength, for just how awesome was his power, unless you climb to the second tier of the upper deck in left and center field at RFK. To get an idea of how distant those seats are from home plate, consider that the mezzanine level hanging above the outfield wall is about four hundred fifty feet away, and that the aisle separating the first tier of the upper deck from the second is more than five hundred feet away. On three separate occasions, Howard's blasts cleared the aisle and landed in the seats beyond. By my calculations—and assuming that information reported in the newspapers back then was accurate—each of these home runs traveled approximately five hundred fifty feet in the air! The most impressive of these gargantuan blasts is the one to straightaway center field that landed in section 542, row 3, seat 3—eleven rows beneath the roof of RFK. Sitting in that seat, with the entire stadium spread out below, one simply cannot fathom how a mere mortal could hit a baseball that far. And keep in mind that Howard reached the upper deck at RFK twenty-four times during his years with the Senators.

In trying to reclaim a cherished piece of my youth, it's no wonder that my journey led me back to Frank Howard and his prodigious home run feats. Howard was an easy guy to admire, a "gentle giant" with a blue-collar work ethic who personified all that was right about sports back then. Of course, the 1960s were a much easier time to have heroes, given that nationwide cable and ESPN hadn't yet taken over the sports landscape and revealed every possible detail about an athlete's life. As a result, hero worship required some imagination, and Howard's home run prowess and persona took on a mythical quality in my eyes. It was a much better time to be a baseball fan, I think, and I was grateful to be taking in the sights and sounds and smells in a familiar place again.

Old Friends
Since the fifth grade, my best friend in life has been Jack Kamerow, a kid a year older than me who lived up the block from my house. Like me, Jack was completely wrapped up in sports, so it makes sense that we became pals. At the core of that friendship was a life-and-death relationship with the local sports teams, and going to Senator games together was an important part of that ritual. It was only fitting, then, that my first trip back to RFK would be with Jack.

Earlier in the year, when I'd called him to mention that I would be returning to D.C. the first week of August for my thirtieth high school reunion (Jack was a year ahead of me in school), I was thrilled to learn that the Nationals would be in town for an extended homestand. At last, a chance to see the old stadium and the new team. I eagerly marked the date on my calendar.

As kids, Jack and I pretty much sat only in the outfield bleachers at RFK, the least expensive section in the place. I'm sure we probably could have afforded better, but I suspect our parents discouraged us from spending our minimal allowance money on anything other than the cheap seats, given the usual mediocrity of the hometown team. In the back of my mind, however, I'd always had this notion that when Jack and I grew up, we'd get season tickets in the box seats at RFK, get a chance to watch games from close up. Unfortunately, the villainous Bob Short came on the scene and wrecked that dream, and then my life's compass steered me toward Minnesota and the Midwest.

So I was pleasantly surprised when Jack showed me the tickets he'd been able to score for the evening: box seats along the first base line. For the first time in my life, I'd be watching a baseball game at RFK from a choice location in the lower deck. How times had changed.

Dodgers versus Nationals
As we settle into our seats for the opening pitch, I'm still struck by how wonderful it feels to be able to return thirty-four years later to a living baseball shrine that holds such fond memories. I know it's never been terribly fashionable to preserve architecture in American cities, which probably explains why RFK, known as D.C. Stadium when it became the new home of the Washington Senators in 1962, is now the fourth oldest baseball venue still in operation (behind Fenway, Wrigley, and Yankee Stadium). But it still angers me that all the blackmailers and politicos behind the stadium construction boom of the 1990s (that continues largely unabated to this day) have no respect for history. I would never suggest that the design of RFK rivals the beauty of "lost" ballparks like Comiskey Park, Ebbets Field, and Tiger Stadium, but I do know the pain one feels when a sense of place is ripped away. So, in many ways, coming back to RFK after all these years is one of the rarest of life's opportunities: a chance to relive something that seemed irretrievably lost. For a few years at least, guys like me get to experience again something we never thought possible—baseball returned to the old ball yard.

Unfortunately, I don't know much about these Nationals beyond what I may remember from a handful of games seen over the years on TV. Livan Hernandez as a playoff and World Series hero with the Florida Marlins in 1997. Nick Johnson as a much ballyhooed future star with the Yankees. Vinny Castilla, the former Rockies slugger. Cristian Guzman, a Minnesota Twin until this season, is the only member of the Nationals active roster with whom I have more than just a passing familiarity. Of course, Manager Frank Robinson, the Hall of Famer who tormented my Senators when he was an Oriole superstar in the late 1960s, is a much remembered nemesis, as is his first base coach, former Oriole outfielder Don Buford. And I have fond memories of Tom McCraw, the team's hitting instructor, who spent the 1971 season in a reserve role with the Senators.

As the Nationals—sporting the same caps that the departed Senators wore from 1968 through 1971—take the field, I feel the goose bumps rise. For today, at least, this is my team. (I half-expect Frank Howard to stride from the dugout when the Nationals come to bat.)

And what a perfect game for a homecoming. The Nationals' John Patterson is marvelous on the mound, limiting the Dodgers to four hits en route to a 7–0 shutout. It is far from a blowout, however. Washington's bats are silent the first three innings, and only in the fourth do they break through against Dodger starter Brad Penny. With nobody out, Ryan Church singles to center, steals second, and comes home on a Vinny Castilla double. Castilla eventually scores after two groundouts, and these are all the runs Patterson will get until the bottom of the eighth. Then the roof caves in for the Dodgers. The Nats load the bases with one out, and Guzman singles in a run to make it 3–0. Carlos Baerga is on deck to pinch hit for Patterson, but the insurance run that Guzman provides apparently convinces Robinson to let Patterson pitch the ninth, because the weak-hitting hurler is allowed to bat for himself. Patterson flies out to left, which brings up center fielder Brad Wilkerson, who has slumped badly this year after leading the Expos in home runs in 2004.

The free-swinging Wilkerson, who has struck out more than 150 times in each of the past three seasons, works the count to three and two against Dodger reliever Duaner Sanchez. Then, as the crowd holds its collective breath, Wilkerson connects—and sends a line drive to right that clears the fence and crashes into the outfield wall, the first grand slam in Nationals history! That's how the game ends, 7–0, as Patterson sets down the Dodgers in the ninth and finishes with thirteen strikeouts, a career high. The shutout is also his first in the big leagues. Everyone goes home happy.

Unfinished Business
The day after the Washington Senators played their last game at RFK, my junior high history teacher, John Dolcich, cornered me in a stairwell before the morning's classes began.

"Did you go to the game last night?" he wanted to know.

I paused for a moment. "No," I weakly replied.

"Tom Goldstein didn't go to the final Senators' game?" He stared at me in disbelief, then turned and walked away.

As I reflect back on that day, so many years later, I ponder why it is that I didn't make the trip to RFK for a final good-bye. Part of it may just have been logistics; going to the stadium was a long trek by bus, the way my friend Jack and I usually got to games, and I'm not sure that we could have pulled it off on a school night. But the other reason is probably psychological: I was in deep denial that my team was leaving, and I guess I figured that if I never saw that final game, I could always go on believing that Frank Howard and the gang had never left.

In some ways, I think that's how my affection for that team has played itself out in my mind over the years. My fandom stands frozen in time. I don't know if returning to RFK in August exorcised any demons, but something positive has definitely been reawakened. I'm not sure that I'm going to become a diehard Nationals fan, or that I'll ever go to a game if and when they build that new extravaganza in Anacostia. But all winter long I'll be thinking about another trip back to RFK, about another chance to see these "retro" Senators again while the old ball yard is still standing.

—EFQ

TOM GOLDSTEIN grew up in suburban Maryland, where he lived and died with the Washington Senators from 1965 through 1971. A Minnesota resident since 1978, he is now completing his eighth year as publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly.

This column first appeared in EFQ 22:4, Fall 2005

© 2005 Tom Goldstein

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