- 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.

RFK was far from a modern-day palace. The Nationals’ clubhouse was the smallest home facility in the majors, dwarfed by a few visiting clubhouses in other ballparks. RFK’s own visitors’ clubhouse? Smaller than those of some high schools.

“It’s an old stadium,” Schneider said. “It’s going to be dirty. There’s going to be some snot. You can’t expect an old stadium to be like new. I understand that. And there’s a lot of history there. Wrigley Field: You can find all kinds of bad stuff there. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad field. It’s unique in its own way. That’s the way I feel about RFK.”

Ask players from other teams how they felt about RFK and most would reply in kind: How could the outfield fences be so far away?

Considered equally fair to hitters and pitchers during its first run as a baseball stadium from 1962 to 1971, RFK was a hitter’s nightmare in its second incarnation. Larger now than most newer, cozier ballparks, RFK also featured misplaced distance markers. The 380-foot signs that graced the left-center and right-center field gaps at the start of the 2005 season were not correct. The actual distances to those points measured more than 390 feet, confirming most players’ suspicions of false advertising.

Several players, most notably Jose Guillen and Jose Vidro, publicly complained about the ballpark turning sure home runs into easy flyouts. The stats didn’t lie: Washington has hit only 168 homers at RFK since 2005, compared to 230 on the road, a psychological hurdle players had to force themselves to overcome.

“It got to a couple of people,” Church said. “But it was just one of those things. You had to deal with it. But you get frustrated. You hit a ball 390 feet, you expect it to go out. You’re sick of hearing: ‘Oh, anywhere else, it’s a homer.’ It shouldn’t be like that.”

The spacious outfield may have driven position players nuts, but Nationals pitchers used it to their advantage. If anyone will be sorry to leave this place, it will be members of Washington’s staff, who posted a 4.11 ERA at RFK compared to a 4.88 mark everywhere else.

“Who knows how deep those alleys really are?” Cordero said. “They could be 10 feet deeper than they say. That could be a tough thing to leave. Every guy who takes the mound here loves it. That’s probably the one thing we’ll miss the most.”

Even if the new park surrenders more home runs, the pitchers probably won’t complain about the gigantic home clubhouse (complete with ethernet access at every locker), the well-maintained field that doesn’t have to be shared with a soccer team and the spacious dugout that smells only like tobacco and sunflower seeds.

“I’m looking forward to the new stadium. Who isn’t?” manager Manny Acta said. “We’ve got to catch up with the times. Regardless of nostalgia and all that, we’ve got to move on.”

But first, the Nationals and longtime local baseball fans will pay one last tribute to RFK: a somewhat-dilapidated, past-its-prime, home-run-swallowing, foul-smelling stadium that for three years still felt like home sweet home.