- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

Enough with all this bellyaching about the District’s proposed new baseball stadium. Who in the name of Bob Short cares whether it’s retro, revolutionary or somewhere in between? All those folks who are gnashing their teeth and rending their garments never saw Griffith Stadium.

The old place at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW was a dump, but at least it was our dump. I practically grew up there watching games in the 1950s, and I liked it just fine. They say you never forget your first love, and that certainly applies to ballyards.

About the time I got old enough to vote, which you couldn’t do in D.C. in the days before home rule, they put up D.C. (now RFK) Stadium and touted it as the best and brightest of sports palaces. That was in 1961, so long ago that George Washington’s football team played in the official dedication game.

Somehow, though, D.C./RFK never warmed the cockles of the heart as Griffith had. True, the new federally funded facility, built for an astonishingly high-priced $23million, had an aerodynamic roof, bathrooms that worked and super sight lines unmarred by iron posts. But when the expansion Senators began playing there in 1962, people learned quickly that its enclosed, cylindrical shape permitted little air to invade the premises.

In the nation’s early days, it is said, ambassadors from some other countries received hardship pay because Washington’s summers were so brutal. If there had been a strong union movement in baseball in the ‘60s, players on other American League teams might have been equally entitled.

Griffith was hot, too, but whatever cooler air there was managed to sneak through holes and open spaces in the stadium, as well as those in the Senators’ defense. I remember some baseball broadcasters reporting for work in short pants. Many female fans wore short everythings.

In the ‘50s, Washington still was a mostly segregated city, and I suppose some fans of the white persuasion were loath to visit the predominantly black area around Griffith. Yet I remember going down U Street on the streetcar alone at the age of 11 or 12 with no concerns whatsoever.

It also was a good place for neighborhood children to learn economics. If you somehow found a parking place on the street, some kid was bound to show up and pipe, “Hey, mister, watch your car for a quarter.”

They must have done a good job because I never knew any driver who had trouble.

Inside Griffith, you could buy a scorecard for 10 cents (pencil stub included) and a watery Coke or a Briggs’ Pigs frank for a quarter. I forget what a beer cost, but it couldn’t have been much. In those days, you could get a six-pack of Natty Boh, the ballclub’s longtime radio and TV sponsor, for 99 cents.

We kids usually sat in the bleachers, which ran from the left-field foul line past dead center, for 75 cents. On a chilly April afternoon in 1953, I was playing hooky when Mickey Mantle became the first and last man to hit a ball over those stands, a shot questionably estimated at 565 feet. I didn’t see the ball clear the bleachers, however, because you couldn’t turn around that fast. Not until the next morning’s paper arrived did I realize what Mantle had accomplished.

Nor was that the Mick’s parting shot. Three springs later, on Opening Day in 1956, he delivered a mammoth home run to either side of the center-field wall, which curved around several houses nestled snugly in a little alcove on the other side. Guys named Dick Tettelbach and Karl Olson hit one each for the Senators, as I recall, but their combined seven lifetime was 529 fewer than Mantle’s haul.

Playing, and rooting, for those Nats was never easy. The same might apply to the current Nationals, who will start their second season with a roster already decimated by injuries. And because of Major League Baseball’s ignorance and disrespect of tradition, they again will open on the road — against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium on April3 — rather than having George W. Bush throw out the first ball at a presidential opener in the nation’s capital. And that 1-9 start on the exhibition trail must have made manager Frank Robinson recall the 0-21 regular-season getaway that afflicted his 1988 Baltimore Orioles.

Yet every marriage of baseball and spring brings new hope, and now we can look forward to watching the national pastime in our new Anacostia Waterfront playpen with the sight or specter of the Capitol gleaming beyond the outfield wall.

So who cares whether the place turns out to be esthetically excellent or merely serviceable? Let’s just get the place built, the Nationals stashed inside and a knowledgeable, fan-oriented person in the owner’s box. Then we’ll know at last that baseball is here to stay.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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