Friday, December 16, 2005

Let me see whether I’ve got this straight (and it isn’t easy, considering the non-fun and games being played by Major League Baseball and the District): Some members of the D.C. Council are advocating the RFK Stadium site for a Washington Nationals ballpark.

Heck, why stop there? Why not build it on the site once occupied by Griffith Stadium at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW? All you’d have to do is tear down the Howard University Hospital and a few dozen small businesses.

I’m sure the hospital folks would be agreeable. They’re such big baseball fans that a few years ago they announced plans to put up a monument to Griffith Stadium on hospital grounds. Nothing came of it, but a new ballpark on the premises might spare them the embarrassment they should feel.

And imagine the dramatic scenarios that might follow.

Critically ill patient: “Why in the name of Dr. Phil is my bed being moved to the basement?”

Nurse: “I’m sorry, sir, but your room is right between first and second base.”

Add a few clandestine affairs between hospital personnel and you could have a TV medical series that would drive “ER,” “House” and “Grey’s Anatomy” right off the air.

Not to mention “Medic,” “Ben Casey” and “Dr. Kildare,” if they were still on the air.

If my Griffith Stadium idea strikes you as silly, what do you call the current wrangling between MLB and the council?

Do I hear idiotic?

Imagine what such a retro idea would do for we old-timers. I spent a lot of nights at Griffith in the 1950s smelling dough baking at the nearby Bond Bread plant, listening to Elder Michaux’s choir singing spirituals across the street and watching the original Senators lose.

I don’t know whether the first two experiences could be recreated, but the Nationals could wind up booting games as badly as the Senators if they keep losing pitchers like Esteban Loaiza and Hector Carrasco.

One big difference: Some of the Senators probably didn’t make enough to buy a loaf of Bond bread, whereas some of the Nats could buy the entire company if it still existed.

One of the Senators’ vastly underpaid players in the 1950s was slugging outfielder Roy Sievers. A few years ago, I encountered Sievers at a memorabilia show the same day Albert Belle signed a huge free agent contract with the Chicago White Sox.

“Hey, Roy,” I chirped. “Did anybody ever offer you $11 million to play ball.”

Sievers didn’t laugh, not even close. “Heavens to Betsy,” he replied, approximately. “If you got up to $20,000, the Griffith family traded you.”

If the council and MLB should embrace the Griffith Stadium site, they wouldn’t need to hire a bunch of expensive suits to design a retro park. I’d be happy to do it as a public service.

I’d tell them about the distant fences that made even the best batters blanch. You had to hit a ball 405 feet down the left-field line for a home run; I probably had as good a chance of doing it as most Washington hitters before Calvin Griffith reduced the distance to about 350 feet by adding a beer garden, of all things, in left.

It was only 328 feet to the right-field wall, if memory serves, but you had to get a ball about 40 feet in the air to clear the tall wall and a scoreboard atop it. One day recently, I asked Mickey Vernon, the Senators’ best left-handed hitter in those days, how he enjoyed playing at Griffith for most of two decades.

Gosh, I hated to see a grown man cry.

Center field was a fur piece, too, as our Southern neighbors would say. When the ballclub rebuilt the park in 1911 after a fire — in three weeks, I might add — it couldn’t convince three homeowners beyond center field to move, so the wall was built around their houses.

There also was a huge oak above the wall that neighborhood kids climbed to watch games for free. One day an opposing hitter — Ted Williams, I think — smashed a mammoth home run into what was known locally as “The Tree,” scattering brats in all directions. Luckily, nobody was seriously hurt.

I remember so much else about Griffith: riding the streetcar down Florida Avenue and watching the light towers grow closer and closer … the 10-cent scorecards and 25-cent hot dogs … the doubleheaders that frequently took only five hours or so to complete … the excitement when Harry or Ike threw out the first ball on Opening Day.

And the losses. Always the losses.

So why not go back to the future, ballparkly speaking? I don’t know how much a new (Griffith?) stadium would cost, but the memories would be worth a couple million by themselves.

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