Thursday, May 5, 2005

Allen Lew, chief executive officer of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, believes the worst of the RFK Stadium field problems is over.

Whether he’s proved correct remains to be seen, but Lew and the sports commission this week are using an unusually long break in the event schedule to address the rash of field issues that cropped up in the past month.

The commission yesterday approved a $646,875 contract to retain until October Duraturf Service Corp., its consultant on the field conversions that switch RFK from soccer and baseball use. Lew also met yesterday with D.C. United president Kevin Payne to discuss the field issues, and hopes to bring Payne and Washington Nationals president Tony Tavares together for a joint session.

“This is a series of building blocks for us,” Lew said. “We’re now through the first month, and we’re working through the growing pains. It’s not a perfect situation but I think we’re making a good amount of progress.”

United plays its next home game Saturday against Columbus. The Nationals have been on the West Coast since Monday and won’t be back until May 13, marking a major breather after RFK played host to 16 events and conducted four field conversions in April.

The additional attention to the RFK field, in the eyes of some players and fans, does not come soon enough. In the last month, players and executives for both United and the Nationals have openly complained about:

• Marked elevation changes on the soccer field, and for one game, uneven markings instead of a regulation-size rectangle.

• A pitching mound repeatedly criticized for its unstable base, and blamed at least in part for the groin injury of Nationals pitcher T.J. Tucker. The mound, which rests on a retractable platform, is being rebuilt to provide extra stability, particularly the front end where pitchers are landing with significant force.

• A drainage system that left puddles on the infield during a Nationals game two weeks ago against Atlanta, and again in a contest against the New York Mets on Saturday. Tavares said the drainage issues are not the fault of the field composition or sports commission, but rather slow decision-making on the part of umpires to suspend play during rain. The field’s clay base composition is the same used in several other ballparks, and is used to retain moisture and diminish dust during play. But the sight of standing water on a major league field still proved an embarrassment, and the Mets made an unsuccessful protest of the game.

Payne and Lew yesterday walked the RFK field, which is in the midst of the conversion to soccer for Saturday’s United game, and Payne said the seams between the temporary sod laid over the basepaths and the permanent grass were significantly better than for prior soccer matches.

But the two clubs are firmly divided over the proper mowing patterns for the field. Payne wants the grass cut sideline-to-sideline for United games, a move that would honor typical FIFA and MLS practices and help avoid a repeat of erroneous field markings. The grass currently is cut to enhance the visual presentation for baseball.

“This is a ridiculous issue. I think we were giving our linesmen vertigo during the last game,” Payne said. “I see no reason why they can’t mow the field to our liking and then go back and do it their way for [the Nationals].”

Tavares, already upset with leftover soccer lines visible during Nationals games, said such back-and-forth maneuvering is not possible.

“You can’t retrain grass overnight,” Tavares said. “I’m not going to compromise the look of our field and have some random-looking outfield. It looks like we have our first disagreement.”

Lew said the sports commission initially hoped to conduct the field conversion process itself after the initial April rush, but decided it could not do it alone, leading to the extension of the Duraturf contract. The process, now whittled to 24 to 36 hours when necessary, involves specialized equipment and the importing of new sod every time the field shifts from baseball to soccer.

RFK is the only stadium to house teams from both MLB and Major League Soccer. Four MLB clubs - Florida, Toronto, Oakland and Minnesota - share their stadiums with a football team.

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