- The Washington Times - Friday, October 1, 2004

The breakneck sprint to ready RFK Stadium for baseball has begun.

Mere hours after Major League Baseball awarded the Montreal Expos to the District, city officials yesterday put into motion a long-discussed and much-revised $13million plan to prepare the 43-year-old facility for baseball.

The work will represent the first physical signs of the return of baseball to Washington after a 33-year absence.

“There is a lot do before April and the expectations are heavy, but we’ll be ready,” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission.

The stadium is the home of soccer’s D.C. United and the occasional rock concert. With the exception of two exhibition games in 1999, RFK has not played host to baseball since 1971. And despite the facility’s roots as a multipurpose venue, the many years without baseball have left much of the needed work quite obvious.

Among the key tasks on the city’s list:

• The creation of the baseball diamond itself, including the pitcher’s mound, baselines, foul poles, center-field batter’s eye and backstop. Drainage also must be improved on the field.

• The construction of a left-field wall and removal of about 5,000 seats on the stadium’s north side to allow for needed outfield space.

• The rebuilding of the visitors’ dugout.

• Upgrades to the team clubhouses.

• Wiring and overall technical upgrades to the baseball press box.

• Creation of modern TV camera positions.

• Permitting and approvals for much of the above list.

The insistence by city officials to have answers from MLB executives on the Expos was predicated in part by the need for at least three months to complete the RFK renovations. The $13million cost is folded into the overall $440million funding package to be introduced today before the D.C. Council.

The passage of that funding is not expected until mid- to late December, creating the narrow window for construction work at RFK.

“It’s going to be a fire drill,” a city source said.

Planning and design, however, can occur sooner than that, and those efforts are consuming much of the attention of sports commission officials. A selection of a program manager to lead the RFK work will occur at Wednesday’s meeting of the sports commission. That hire will be followed by the selection of a design company by late October.

“This is all achievable, but it’s obviously critical to have an efficient management structure,” said Chris Dunlavey, a District-based planner and candidate for the RFK program manager job.

The biggest hurdle for the RFK work could be D.C. United. Team president Kevin Payne has made no secret of his strong displeasure over the prospect of playing soccer games over baseball basepaths. Payne said he is awaiting a specific plan from the sports commission to play soccer games on a field reconfigured for baseball.

That plan might involve the use of portable trays of sod, a system used to build a temporary soccer field in facilities like the Pontiac (Mich.) Silverdome. The technology also has been used to mixed reviews in football.

A final answer to the dilemma will not arrive until after the sports commission hires the project manager for the baseball renovations.

One potential problem with the tray system is an elevation difference and uneven seams between the imported sod and the permanent grass already in place.

“We don’t want to play across infield dirt with grass an inch-and-a-half or two inches about that level,” Payne said. “Do I want Freddy Adu to go out there and blow his knee out playing because there is a baseball infield? No — or any other player for that matter.”

Said Bill Hall, sports commission director: “We will be sitting down with Kevin and United in the very near future to work out these issues. I have no doubt we will find a solution that allows to coexist well.”

United and the soon-to-be-renamed Expos both will have office space at RFK Stadium.

Staff writer Ken Wright contributed to this article.

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