- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2005

Just two days after the Washington Nationals played their final exhibition game of the year at RFK Stadium, any clues a baseball game had been played there were growing quite scarce yesterday.

The pitchers’ mound, sitting on a hydraulic lift, was retracted into the ground and covered with newly laid sod, as were the basepaths. A large section of seats once lining the third-base line now sit back along the stadium’s north end, where they have been most of RFK’s 44 years. Much of the padded outfield fence now sits in temporary storage.

Though the Nationals are considered RFK’s primary tenant, the stadium was a flurry of activity yesterday as workers prepared for the return of soccer. D.C. United will return to RFK tonight in a CONCACAF Champions Cup game against Mexican club Pumas UNAM and then its MLS home opener Saturday against the Chicago Fire.

The field conversions, as they are being branded, mirror the back-and-forth activity common to the multipurpose stadiums of the 1960s and 1970s RFK helped spawn. With RFK using a natural grass field and the soccer and baseball schedules in near-total alignment, the conversions represent the toughest hurdle in the $18.4 million stadium renovation project tied to the arrival of the Nationals.

Yesterday’s initial conversion will be followed by at least 19 more before October, with each one costing about $40,000.

“This is definitely a work in progress. It’s a lot of moving parts, and we’re sort of figuring things out as we go. But this process does work,” said Allen Y. Lew, chief executive officer of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission.

Lew already is trying to find ways to winnow the 48-to-72 hour procedure down to no more than a day and a half.

“There’s anxiety with this, but it would be foolish not to have concerns,” he said.

Workers began the conversion process mere minutes after the last out was recorded Sunday in the Nationals’ 4-3 exhibition loss to the New York Mets. And within hours, several problems surfaced. The roof to the batting tunnels behind the Nationals’ dugout is being lowered to create room for the movable section of seats to slide along its rail. A metal rod underneath those stands caught a chunk of the left-field turf during the two-hour shifting process, creating a large divot that will need repair before the Nationals’ April 14 home opener.

Late yesterday afternoon, surveyors still were plotting out the exact field boundaries for the soccer pitch. And within the field, several awkward transitions could be found between the baseball field grass and the new sod laid Monday for soccer.

“There is a difference in the grass, no question. But I think it looks as good as could be expected,” said United president Kevin Payne, who has monitored the conversion closely. “The attitude of the sports commission has been great, and I think everybody’s trying to make this work.”

Similar to Payne, Nationals president Tony Tavares is reserving final judgment on the success of the conversions until both teams begin official games.

“I’m watching this process with a great deal of interest,” Tavares said. “This is a very significant changeover that’s happening, but it’s too soon to tell where we stand until we get to the 14th.”

Beyond simple field mechanics, the conversion process also involves switching numerous banners and advertising signs around the stadium to reflect the corporate presence and fan atmosphere each team wants. Perhaps most noticeably, the soccer ball clock that is an RFK fixture at the stadium’s east end will return for United games. The clock is covered with a Nationals faceplate for baseball.

“I’ve had to play [King] Solomon a bit through all of this, but I’m very committed to soccer, just like I’m very committed to baseball,” Lew said. “I expect this to work for everybody.”

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