- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

When District officials made their pitch to Major League Baseball for placing a team in the nation’s capital, they did not highlight a 44-year-old stadium rife with security and trash removal problems, food outages and spotty field quality.

Yet that’s precisely what has occurred, souring what otherwise has been a largely successful relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington.

The latest and most glaring problem in a series of operational gaffes this season at RFK Stadium happened last week, when 12 cars belonging to Nationals players and employees parked in a gated stadium lot were vandalized and a sport utility vehicle owned by Washington Nationals outfielder Marlon Byrd was stolen. Officials for the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, which manages RFK Stadium, were quick to respond, pledging the prompt installation of an electronic security gate for the players’ parking lot and additional video surveillance.

But they also acknowledged being caught off guard by the incident.

“This stadium is like a ‘57 Chevy,” said Allen Y. Lew, sports commission chief executive officer. “It has all the appeal and allure of a ‘57 Chevy but also the downside because it’s old and things break down. We all have to recognize this is not a new facility and a lot of repairs we’re now making really should have been done years ago. We’re going to keep at this and work through the issues. But we understand that when one thing gets corrected, something else is going to crop up, and we’ll need to address that, too.”

The sports commission met over the weekend with Nationals officials to address the mounting operational issues, and team president Tony Tavares said yesterday he was pleased with the city’s responsiveness. Another session is planned for early tomorrow, during which a replacement of the infield grass will be considered. But Tavares said he intends to keep a watchful eye on whether and when corrections are made.

“Old doesn’t have to mean dirty. I don’t want the age of the stadium being used as an excuse,” Tavares said. “You can be old and still clean and well-run.”

The sports commission, the Nationals and D.C. United, the other stadium co-tenant, all expected some early hiccups at RFK, the only sports facility to house teams from both Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer. The stadium was reconverted for baseball in just four months, about half the time originally desired because of delays by MLB in making the relocation decision and then by the D.C. Council in considering a funding bill for the Nationals’ new stadium in Southeast. Once spring arrived, RFK personnel began wrestling with the complicated mechanics of changing the field back and forth between soccer and baseball, sometimes in as little as 24 hours.

But with three months of both the soccer and baseball seasons now in the books, patience is running thin over the repeated miscues. If the Nationals continue their improbable run atop the National League East division into the playoffs, scrutiny over the stadium management will heighten even more as media and fans descend on RFK.

In the meantime, the Nationals continue to post solid attendance numbers, with the team ranking 13th in MLB with an average home crowd of 32,312. But the general feeling around the team is that the strong draws are happening in spite of the lack of modern stadium amenities and erratic food service.

In particular, fan and sports commission ire have been directed at Aramark, the RFK concessionaire. Lew threatened to fire the company earlier this month after regular incidents of long lines for stadium food and outages of staples like hot dog buns and beer. Lew said Aramark has improved in recent weeks but said “there is definitely room to do more.”

Despite the challenges operating RFK, some elements have happened without incident. Nationals games largely have been free of traffic either on the Metro or surrounding highways. The facility’s expansive parking lots have eliminated most of the clamor for spaces seen in San Francisco, New York and other cities. And the Nationals have used the boisterous home crowds to post an MLB-best 26-10 record at home.

“I want this to be a first-class facility,” Lew said. “I think what’s happening is all manageable, but we need to keep pushing.”

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