- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

It was a temporary arrangement all along, a run-down stadium where they could drop their bags off, play some ballgames for three seasons and then move on to their luxurious, permanent ballpark a few miles away.

And yet, for those players who had suffered through years of uncertainty and upheaval in Montreal, RFK Stadium might have been the crown jewel of major league ballparks.

Camden Yards? PNC Park? Coors Field? Sure, those places were newer, boasted more creature comforts and didn”t smell like, you know, raw sewage. But make no mistake, for the Washington Nationals, RFK was home from day one.

“The way we were embraced by the fans here, we had never experienced that before,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “They were so happy and proud to have us there. It made us feel good. It was definitely home for us.”

So, believe it or not, there will be a few tears shed today by the Nationals when they play their final game on East Capitol Street. Perhaps the emotions won’t be as strong as they will for those baseball fans who grew up watching the Senators lose night after night, then waited 34 long years to see the big leagues return to the District. But this won’t be a totally soulless event for the men in uniform who actually have grown fond of their temporary digs.

“This was our first home here. This is all we’ve known so far,” closer Chad Cordero said. “And this place has treated us well these last couple years. It’s going to be kind of sad to leave this place.”

RFK did treat the Nationals well. Though their overall record the last three seasons (220-258 entering last night’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies) is a losing one, they were winners at RFK, owners of a respectable 121-120 home record.

In only three years, RFK provided its share of memorable moments. The home opener in 2005, when President Bush threw out the first pitch and a sellout crowd roared as Vinny Castilla and Livan Hernandez led the new home team to victory, remains the top moment for most Nationals players.

“To be involved in that first pitch, I’ll never forget that,” Schneider said.

Really, the entire 2005 season — when a spunky Nationals club surprised the baseball world by rattling off 10 straight wins (many of them in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion) to take over first place in the NL East — represented one, sustained memory.

“That run we had where we won 10 in a row and left here in first place,” outfielder Ryan Church said when asked to name his favorite RFK moment. “We swept everybody. I hit that three-run homer off the Marlins [on June 5]. We were finally in first place after that. That’s something I’ll remember. I just remember the fans jumping up and down in the stands, going crazy.”

Ah, the bouncing stands, an RFK staple since the place opened in 1961 but a long-forgotten feature after the Redskins bolted for Landover in 1997. The tradition was revived on Opening Night in 2005, when fans in the portable sections of the lower deck down the third-base line started jumping up and down, making the entire stadium shake.

“I definitely love the left-field bleachers,” Schneider said. “I know a lot of people say that. But it’s cool to be a player, look down the left-field line and see like a wave of people. That’s exactly what it looks like.”

Not everything about RFK was cool, though, especially on a hot July afternoon when a thick air settled inside the enclosed stadium and left everyone sticky and gasping for air.

Then there was “the smell,” that unmistakable odor wafting up from the drains inside the Nationals’ dugout that most players were convinced led on a direct path to the bathrooms. Every once in a while, stadium workers would pour gallons of bleach down the drain to eliminate the stench. But inevitably, it would return a few days later, terrorizing its next victim.

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