Field Trip of Dreams


 Around the Major Leagues in 49 Days

RFK Stadium
Washington, DC

By Ken Schlapp

The demise of the Expos, led to the birth of the Washington Nationals, but more importantly, it led me to add two more baseball stadiums to my total.  I say two, because the Nationals will begin the 2005 season at RFK before eventually having their own brand new stadium, which I will, of course, make way to see once it opens.  This also makes me wonder just how they are going to be able to play at RFK, considering that baseball had not been played here since the Cracker Jack Old-timer game in 1983.  Not to mention the fact that when Troy Scott gave me a tour of the stadium in 2003, he said that the stadium was designed with a complex conversion system to move some portions of the seats to accommodate football and then back to baseball. However, he did not believe that the conversion mechanics from football field dimension to baseball dimensions would work anymore.

Obviously, they found a way to make baseball work again at RFK, but before I go into those details, I will provide an historical excerpt of RFK Stadium from my initial story from 2003:

The second coming of the Senators played their home games at Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium (RFK) in Washington, DC from 1962 to 1971, prior to moving to Texas and becoming the Texas Rangers.  I always thought the history of the Senators was so interesting and strange.  The original Senators were famous for the vaudeville joke “First in War, First in Peace, last in the American League!”  Although, that was from when they played their games at Griffith Stadium (demolished in 1965).  The strange twist was that they left Washington after the 1960 season to move to Minnesota becoming the Twins in 1961.  However, they were immediately replaced by the expansion Washington Senators the following season.  So the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers were both originally the Washington Senators.

The new Senators played their first season at Griffith Stadium in 1961.  They did not move into RFK Stadium, which was originally called the District of Columbia Stadium, until 1962 (the stadium name was not changed until 1969).  The stadium had opened in the prior year for the NFL’s Washington Redskins, who played at RFK through the 1996 season.  Since the Senators left after the 1971 season and the Skins after 1996, the stadium had been predominantly the home of the DC United of MLS soccer league.

As part of the updated conversion process for 2005, the seats behind 3rd base were permanently removed for baseball and not returned for soccer matches.

One thing I did not realize when I took my trip in 2003, was that this was the first stadium that was designed for the purpose of playing both baseball and football.  Many other stadiums housed both sports in the past, but they simply made it work, regardless of the design of the stadium, while RFK was intended to be used in that way.  Hence, the complex conversion system.  The other interesting tidbit is that when the Nationals began playing here, the stadium became the 3rd oldest baseball stadium in use (after Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago) for baseball.  Yankee fans will argue otherwise, but the original Yankee Stadium was effectively demolished in 1974 and Yankee Stadium II was completed on the same sight in 1976 in a place Ruth neither built nor played in.

Considering, at least in my mind, that RFK was so close to New York (a four hour drive), I had to make it to Washington, DC to see the their first game, which happened to be an exhibition game against the Mets on April 3, 2005.  However, that was not enough for this psychotic baseball fan.  Since the Nationals first ever regular-season game would take place on opening day at nearby Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia two days later on April 4, 2005, I had to take that 2-hour drive to be there for opening day.  No, I could not stop at that either, so I managed to arrange a reason to work out of Segal’s DC office on April 14, 2005 to be at RFK for the Nationals first ever home opening day in Washington.  However, this time I took the Acela train back and forth to DC and the DC Metro to the game.

For the first of those three games I crashed at Paul’s house in Hazlet, New Jersey the night before so we could get an early start on our drive down to DC.  The bonus on this was that we get to see our Mets play as well.  As I had done previously, I took a walk around RFK Stadium on the outside before heading inside.  I still think it looks a bit like Hiram Bithorn Stadium from the outside and still like that they had statues of Calvin Griffith and George Preston Hall to represent the stadiums history with Senators baseball and Redskins football.  I also, noticed that the name of the stadium on the outside read “Armed Forces Field at RFK”. Once inside, I looked for my free credit card giveaway, but there was none today, but instead of heading over to buy a souvenir-sized soda, I was simply able to grab the free cups they were giving away.  Even better was that in the “National” spirit of Washington, DC being the nation’s Capital, we each got a red, a white, and a blue Nationals cup.

I noticed that they did make some changes to the stadium from 2003.  The Washington Hall of Stars was originally displayed on white and red signs all around the façade of the mezzanine seats forming a ring of stars around the circular stadium.  When they refit the stadium in 2005, this ring of stars was removed and replaced by out-of-town scoreboards and advertisements.  Thankfully, the Hall of Stars was not lost, it was just redesigned and replaced by 15 dark green panels over the center and right field walls, which honor the great athletes of Washington’s past.  The great thing is that athletes from many different sports are represented.  Some of those 82 honored athletes are as follows:

-Baseball – Gil Hodges, Walter Johnson, Goose Goslin, Josh Gibson, and Frank Howard
Football – Sonny Jurgensen, Vince Lombardi, and Art Monk
Hockey – Rod Langway
Basketball – Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes

They even included Olympians, Boxers, Soccer players, famous sports writer Shirley Povich, and a panel dedicated solely to the Heroes of September 11th.  Overall, I love their dedication to Washington history that does not forget the Negro League players either.

Some other differences that I noticed were the Nationals banners in left field, the giant Nationals clock in center field and the giant Budweiser sign in right field.  The new editions do add to the stadium and differentiate it from when the old Senators played here.  The most important difference, however, was Foggey’s Brew Pub inside the Stadium.  Since there was no game when I came in in 2003, I had no food or drink options, but this time I was able to grab a beer, which is always a good thing…unless of course it is a Bud or Coors.

Considering that this first game was technically still spring training, there were many player switches throughout the game, which always makes keeping score a headache, but I did my best.  During the first 3 innings, the Mets were only able to reach base via 2 walks off Nats starter Tomo Ohko.  The Nats, however, broke through in the bottom of the 3rd when Ryan Church followed singles by Brad Wilerson and Vinny Castilla with a 3-run home run off   Victor Zambrano (of Scott Kazmir fame) to put them on top 3-0.  The Mets answered back in the 4th with back-to-back homers by Cliff Floyd and David Wright to get the Mets within 1 run.  The Mets would add another 2 runs in the 5th on a walk to Turner, a single by Jose Reyes, an RBI single by Carlos Beltran and a sacrifice fly by Floyd to give the Mets a 4-3 lead, which is how the game would end.  The Nationals never really threatened after the 3rd inning.  Yusmero Petit and Royce Ring threw 2 hitless innings each and Santiago closed out the game with a save even though he gave up 2 hits.  So the trip was worthwhile to see my first game at RFK coupled with a Mets victory.

The next part of this 3-game venture was opening day in Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, meaning that I get to quote several firsts in Nationals history.  To start, their first batter was Brad Wilkerson, who promptly singled off John Leiber to get the first hit out of the way.  The Nationals got their first run in the 2nd, when Nick Johnson scored on Termel Sledge’s ground out to 2nd base.  That also gave them a 1-0 lead or you may say, their first lead.  Livan Hernandez made their first pitch to Jimmy Rollins, who followed Wilkerson’s lead by reaching on a single.  Rollins would end up reaching 3rd on a stolen base and a throwing error on the catcher (Schneider), but Hernandez would get out of the jam by striking out Bobby Abreu and Jim Thome to end the inning.

Hernandez would not continue to get out of jams though.  In the 2nd he walked Kenny Lofton in between singles by Pat Burrell and David Bell, before Burrell and Lofton would score on a groundout by Mike  Leiberthal and a sacrifice fly by pitcher John Leiber, meaning that the first 3 runs all scored on outs.  These 2 runs put the Phillies ahead for good.  The Phils would tack on another run in the 3rd on a single by Abreu and an RBI double by Burrell, which was the first run scored on a hit.  The big damage, however, occurred in the bottom of the 5th when Rollins and Placido Polanco singled, Thome was intentionally walked, before Rollins would score on a sac fly by Burrell, but the biggest blast was a 3-run homer by Lofton which knocked Hernandez out of the game and gave the Phillies a 7-1 lead.  Hernandez, the first starting pitcher in Nationals history did not leave with a good stat line, he finished 4.2 innings while giving up 7 runs on 8 hits and 2 walks while striking out 4.

Termel Sledge ht a 2-run homer off Leiber in the 6th inning to record the Nationals first home run and knock Leiber out of the game after going 5.2 innings, while giving up 10 hits, 1 walk, and 3 runs, but ultimately ending up as the winning pitcher.  Both teams would add another run to the total before the game was settled in the 9th when “Enter Sandman” came blaring out of the speakers as Billy Wagner came from the bullpen to close the game out by pitching a 1-2-3 inning.  So I also got to see the Nationals first loss, but it felt more like a Mets game with Pat Burrell going 3-3 with a sac fly, a walk, a double, 2 runs and 2 RBI.  I am used to watching him kill the Mets so there was no reason for me to be surprised by him killing the Nationals in their first ever game.

The next stop on this 3-game jaunt was to head back to Washington for the Nationals very first opening day.  Although, for me, this was my 3rd opening day of the season (Phillies, Mets, and Nationals).  I managed to make it to the game by finagling to work in my DC office, so as I normally do for business I hopped on the Acela from Penn Station to get to Washington, which is the most comfortably laid back way to get there.  My plan was to leave work at 5 PM and hop on the Metro to meet up with Bob, Danny, and Connor Tobin at will call for the game.  It is a relatively short ride to RFK from Dupont Circle, so I assumed I would have plenty of time to walk around the stadium before the game.  The only problem was that President Bush was throwing out the first pitch, meaning they installed metal detectors and an infinite amount of security at the game.  The lines to get in were horrendous and took me so long that we barely got in the stadium in time for the first pitch.  It is a nice tradition for the President to throw out the first pitch on opening day, but for all the trouble it caused me, I clearly could have done without it!

Coincidentally, I got to see Livan Hernandez pitch again, but to much different results today.  I think it was very interesting that he pitched both the season opener and the home opener.  His opponent was Javiar Vazquez of the Diamondbacks.  Both pitchers started off well with a scoreless 1st inning.  Vinny Castilla got the first Nationals hit on a 2nd inning double, but he would not score.  Vazquez then struck out the side in the 3rd, while Hernandez bent but did not break in the 4th when he loaded the bases with Diamondbacks before inducing Snyder to end the inning on a ground out. 

The Nationals finally broke the ice in the 4th inning.  Jose Vidro doubled, Jose Guillen was hit by a pitch prior to both scoring on a 2-RBI triple by Vinny Castilla, who also scored on a sac fly by Schneider to give the Nats a 3-0 lead.  Castilla once again stirred things up in the 6th, when he hit a 2-run homer to push the lead to 5-0 and effectively end the night for Vazquez, who exited the game after 6 innings, allowing 5 runs on 8 hits, 1 walk, 1 HBP, and 8 strikeouts.  Meanwhile, Hernandez was shutting the Diamondbacks out for 8 innings.  However, with 1 out in the 9th, they finally got to Hernandez when Chad Tracey hit a 3-run home run to knock him out of the game.  He had an impressive line score anyway: 8.1 innings, 3 runs, 3 hits, 6 walks, and 5 Ks, but most importantly a win on the Nationals very first opening day.  Chad Cordero came in to get the last 2 outs and save the game and the 5-3 final score.  The hero of the day, however, was unquestionably Vinny Castilla, who factored in every run with 2 runs and 4 RBI and just missed hitting for the cycle.  The only thing missing was the single!

After the memorable opening weeks of the Nationals inaugural season, I did go back several more times, but none more memorable than the final game of the 2006 season.  The Mets had easily clinched the East division title and were finishing up the regular season in Washington, so I decided to use my Amtrak points and head back and forth to the game by train.  The first memorable part of the game was sitting next to a woman that repeatedly talked about how nice the people are at Nationals games compared to the typical obnoxious New Yorker.  Maybe it is just me, but that was pretty obnoxiously righteous of her.  Too often during my travels, I run into people from the Midwest and other parts of the states that are very obnoxious about saying how obnoxious New Yorkers are.  I guess people cannot always see the forest for the trees.  This obnoxiousness continued at the end of the game, which happened to be Frank Robinson’s last game as Manager of the Nationals (or anyone else).  Therefore, at the end of the game, the crowd gave him a standing ovation in appreciation of his great career as a player and manager.  Miss obnoxious proceeded to go on about how that would not happen in New York.  With eyes rolling, I politely told her that she does not have a clue about New York or how knowledgeable and appreciative New York fans can be about great athletes in sports.  The funny thing is that at this point I have no recollection of who won the game (I think the Mets won), but what came next was even more interesting.

Once the cheering stopped for Frank Robinson, I rushed out to the Metro to get to Union Station as quickly as possible to try to catch an earlier train home to get back to the comfort of my fellow obnoxious New Yorkers.  I got to Union Station quick enough to board a train back to Penn Station immediately.  The only down side was that it was not an Acela, so I just sat in the last row of the last car in coach.  I noticed a Hispanic couple in front of me, but did not really pay attention until the man got up and went to the bathroom.  At this point I was pretty sure that it was Carlos Beltran, but that did not make sense to me.  Why would the biggest star on the Mets be taking a coach seat on Amtrak to go home on his own instead of riding with the team, not to mention that he must have skipped out of the stadium earlier than his teammates too.  While he was in the bathroom, his female companion put her hand on the back of her seat and inadvertently displayed a diamond ring the size of Manhattan, which confirmed to me that it was indeed Carlos Beltran.

Even though I now knew I was sitting behind the Mets star, I did not let on I knew who was in front of me because I assumed they were there to have some privacy from the team and the fans.  I do not speak any Spanish but I did hear them say Pedro Martinez and start laughing, meaning they saw the shirt I was wearing and assumed I knew not who he was.  This now made me laugh, but not for long.  Considering that I was at the end of a bad cold and coughing a lung out on the entire ride back, I was starting to think that I was going to have my Jerry Seinfeld moment and get Carlos Beltran sick, which would cost my Mets the Championship!  However, once we got to Penn Station I did wish him luck in the playoffs.  The unfortunate thing for him though, was that my good luck wish outed him.  Other people then also realized who he was and were started talking to him and asking him for his autograph while I headed for the exit. 

Thankfully, he did not end up getting sick or was it my fault that he never took his bat off his shoulder when he struck out looking against Adam Wainwright to end the Mets season in the League Championship Series?  Otherwise, why would he just stand there?  Sorry guys, it was an accident.

Bottom line – It is still a bit of a cookie-cutter multi-purpose stadium, but in my mind, it is good that baseball is back in the Nation’s Capital.  I am just sad for those die-hard fans in Montreal that lost the team that they had followed for 36 seasons.

Basic trip facts:

-Stadium # 34
-Old Stadium Sites visited – None (Total – 22)
-Under construction Stadium Sites visited – None (Total – 2)
-Miles traveled – 775 via Driving, 12 via Subway and 460 via Amtrak (Totals: Driving – 19,486, Subway - 38, Amtrak – 460, Air - 11,360, Total – 31,344)
-States, provinces, Districts and/or commonwealths passed through – New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia (Totals: States – 48, Provinces – 2, Districts – 1, Commonwealths - 1)
-Seats –
-Prices: Parking – $10, Beer – UNK, Hot Dogs – $4.00-$5.50, Program (including pencil) – ?, Souvenir Soda Cup – $0.00
-Credit Card giveaway –  None
-First Pitch -  12.05 PM (4/3/2005),  3:05 PM (4/4/2005), 7:05 (4/14/2005)


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