- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005

Just 120 days ago, RFK Stadium was a dusty old stadium rife with peeling paint, toilets that didn’t work and outdated utilities.

RFK still is showing its 44 years, but as the Washington Nationals take the field this afternoon for an exhibition game against the New York Mets, an $18.4 million transformation some thought wouldn’t happen will be nearly complete.

A sparkling baseball diamond is in place, with the grass being laid less than three weeks ago. Newly installed food service and concession stands line the concourses. High-tech electronic scoreboards now circle around the upper-deck facade. A fresh green coat of paint for the back wall beyond the outfield fence provides a prominent sense of newness. The Nationals’ dugout along the third-base line was completely reconstructed, and team clubhouses received a dramatic facelift.

The RFK renovation work originally was slated to take six to eight months, but the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission was forced to make do with half that time after Major League Baseball delayed several times its decision to relocate the Montreal Expos to the District. More time was lost last fall when the D.C. Council haggled over financing for a new ballpark near the Anacostia River waterfront, temporarily threatening the Nationals’ future in Washington.

With a crowd of more than 30,000 expected for a game that will benefit the Nationals’ charitable foundation, today’s contest serves as an important test run for the team’s April 14 home opener against Arizona.

“We’re basically done. What’s left are just a lot of odds and ends,” said Thomas Engers, project manager for Turner Construction Co. on the RFK renovation. More than 600 workers participated in the project, with between 300 and 400 present at any given time.

“I don’t think anything about this was particularly easy or hard. It was really a matter of doing 100 things at the same time,” Engers said. “But what really helped is that we had a very capable crew who seemed to know what they were doing whether they had blueprints or not.”

Nationals players and coaches, having struggled mightily through the latter days of spring training in Viera, Fla., said they were looking forward to playing at RFK. Some Nationals players had never been to Washington before arriving last night.

“Everyone wants to see how the field plays, how the hitter’s backdrop looks, how the ball bounces,” said catcher Brian Schneider. “I know guys are excited to see how it plays, see the fans and just see our new home finally.”

Even during yesterday’s heavy rainfall, workers buzzed furiously around the stadium making last-minute preparations, cleaning the entire facility and installing corporate sponsor signboards.

Arguably the biggest early test for RFK will actually arrive after today’s game when stadium workers begin the first conversion of the field from baseball use to soccer for D.C. United. Designed to happen in just 48 hours, the centerpieces to the conversion process are a pitching mound that sits on a hydraulic lift and a section of seats along the third-base side that slides along a rail to accommodate the different field dimensions.

Three more conversions back and forth between baseball and soccer are scheduled during April. No other MLB club shares its stadium with a soccer team.

“To me, that’s the most interesting part of this whole project,” Engers said. “The big challenge was finding a way to do this quickly and economically. We still need to see how that all plays out.”

Today’s exhibition game also will mark the debut of a new RFK Ring of Honor. Names of Washington sports legends like Walter Johnson and Frank Howard previously were displayed on signs lining the upper-deck facade. Those names will now appear on a large banner hung beyond the right-field fence.

“How can you not be excited?” said Nationals infielder Jamey Carroll. “If you’re not, you shouldn’t be in this clubhouse.”

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