- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

VIERA, Fla. — Workers are painting, drilling and sanding all over Space Coast Stadium, trying to finally make it seem like the spring training home ballpark for the Washington Nationals. It is a rebirth of sorts, with the teal seats of the old tenants, the Florida Marlins, being replaced with Nationals blue.

And while the Nationals prepare for their first non-orphan season at Space Coast Stadium, they also are preparing to say goodbye to baseball’s District home for 45 years — with a 34-year hiatus in between — in what is expected to be the last season of baseball at RFK Stadium.

Nationals fans can expect the franchise to spend this season recognizing the historic significance of the final season at RFK, team president Stan Kasten said. And those celebrations won’t be limited to honoring baseball at RFK, but baseball in Washington as well.

“The promotions people are working on those things,” Kasten said in his first spring training with the Nationals. “During the year, we have talked about celebrating different things which may have happened historically.”

Those festivities will culminate in the final home series of the season, a four-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies from Sept. 20 to 23.

“The last weekend is going to be a big deal,” Kasten said. “We will have so much going on Opening Day that I don’t think we will have any special memorial things on Opening Day. But everyone does realize the significance of this year. Remember, this is the last Opening Day ever at RFK. I hope people turn out for no other reason than for that.”

The new Southeast ballpark is supposed to open in time for the 2008 season, and the way it is progressing, everyone seems confident that is going to happen.

“I do really feel like it is going to be the last year, if you’ve seen the new stadium,” Kasten said. “Have you driven by it recently? They are moving fast.”

Yes, they are. But, as they say, stuff happens.

Still, it’s smart for Kasten and the Lerner family to both commemorate and capitalize on the last season of baseball at RFK. There may have been a generation of baseball fans in the District who grew up without the game, and their nostalgia, if any, may rest north in Baltimore.

But there remains here a devoted core of Washington baseball fans who are passionate about the history of the Senators, because for those fans, all they had was the history and memories of going to games at RFK and Griffith Stadium before that. They hung on to those memories because there were no new ones to replace them. For a good number of baseball fans in this town, it has always been 1969 — Ted Williams is still in the dugout, Dick Bosman is on the mound, and Frank Howard is hitting mammoth home runs.

And that love of history goes beyond what they may have grown up with. It goes back to the days of Sam Rice and the great Walter Johnson (this will be the 100th anniversary of Johnson’s major league debut), and includes the treasured Negro League history of the Homestead Grays. It was as if with each passing year baseball was gone, the more important the history of baseball in this town became to fans.

Kasten said the Nationals recognize that, and will do so this final year at RFK and in the new ballpark as well.

“In our new ballpark, we will have a bar that is a Senators bar and another that is a [Homestead] Grays bar,” he said. “We will increasingly be paying more and more homage to baseball’s roots in our city. There is not much you can do at RFK, but we will be trying during this last year of baseball at RFK.”

Kasten said that will include connections with old Senators players, which hopefully will mean the seeing Hondo and Chuck Hinton and other Senators at RFK to give the ballpark its proper baseball farewell.

The first baseball game at RFK was played on April 9, 1962 against the Detroit Tigers. President John F. Kennedy threw out the first pitch. The last baseball game at RFK will be played on Sept. 23, 2007 against the Philadelphia Phillies. It may hardly be a memorable season on the field, but hopefully Kasten and the Lerners will make the goodbye worthy of the fans who kept the fires burning for so many years.

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