Friday, June 24, 2005

Twelve cars belonging to Washington Nationals players and employees were broken into early this week at RFK Stadium, with a black Cadillac Escalade owned by outfielder Marlon Byrd stolen out of the gated parking lot.

Marking another embarrassing miscue in an often-difficult assimilation of baseball this season into the operations of the 44-year-old stadium, the luxury cars were vandalized in broad daylight Monday while the team was in Pittsburgh preparing to play the Pirates. The players’ parking lot, surrounded by a locked, chain-link fence, is periodically monitored by RFK security. But the lot, located on the east side of the stadium, does not have a regular guard stationed there.

While Byrd’s Escalade was the only auto stolen, other players and employees suffered theft of contents of their cars such as golf clubs, credit cards and global positioning system navigation devices, as well as broken windows, damaged locks and cracked steering columns.

“[This happening to] a major league baseball team in Wash ington, D.C., after September 11? It makes no sense,” said an extremely upset Byrd. “There was major league security when I was in [Philadelphia]. You had a guy sitting out there the whole time.”

Officials for the DC Sports & Entertainment Commission, which manages RFK Stadium, said they are now planning to install extra security elements such as an electronic gate and additional video cameras.

“Unfortunately we’re not immune to these types of things in the big city,” said Tony Robinson, sports commission spokesman.

Team sources said another RFK break-in happened at the car of a Nationals coach earlier this season. Some elements of the latest auto break-ins were first reported by Comcast SportsNet.

“There’s a lot of unhappy people in this locker room,” said outfielder Ryan Church, one of the affected players.

Nationals officials, predictably irate at the security lapse, plan to meet soon with the sports commission to address the issue and will help pay insurance deductibles and other related expenses to the affected players.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make them whole on this,” said team president Tony Tavares. “I don’t want them going out-of-pocket to make their repairs.”

Players parking at the home stadium before leaving on a road trip is common among major league players. Typically, teams gather at the home stadium and then travel together to the airport to catch their charter flight. Some players, however, choose to take a cab instead in order to keep their vehicles at home.

“I don’t leave my cars here. My cars are way too expensive,” said outfielder Jose Guillen, who owns an Aston-Martin and a Porsche. “I don’t like this area. It’s a weird, weird, weird place here.”

All the cars vandalized and stolen are believed to be American brands, several Nationals players said. According to Metropolitan Police Inspector Andrew Solberg, surveillance video shows a black pickup truck with West Virginia tags entering the players’ parking lot at 2:15 p.m. Monday, carrying four young black men. Three of the men exited the vehicle, used an unidentified device to break the car locks, stole the Escalade and left the area quickly. The video does not clearly identify the suspects, but it has been sent to the FBI for enhancement.

“The theory is these four guys who came into this were responsible for all that occurred there,” Mr. Solberg said.

The car-security issue, however, is far from the only operational problem at RFK, also used by D.C. United. Aramark, the stadium concessionaire, continues to work under the skeptical eye of sports commission officials after several early-season problems with long lines, food outages and problems with employee hiring and training. Rodents are commonly found lurking about the stadium basement and concourses. And perhaps more pressing, the field quality has degraded significantly since the Nationals finished their last homestand June 12, with brown patches easily visible.

“The field conditions, and the conversions back and forth from soccer, are still quite an issue we’re contending with,” Mr. Tavares said. “The field right now is absolutely horrible.”

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