- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2007

Washington baseball fans know how to say hello and goodbye.

Three years ago, 45,596 fans came to RFK Stadium to celebrate the return of major league baseball to the District in its new incarnation, the Washington Nationals.

The crowd yesterday was nearly as big — 40,519, the largest of the season at the 46-year-old stadium — and nearly as festive.

The stands bounced. Banners ripped carpetbagger Bob Short, who took the Senators away in 1971 (three banners unfurled from the center field seats read, “Short Still Stinks”). Chants of “We Want Teddy” arose for the Racing President who still has never won the fourth-inning sprint from the right-field bullpen.

The Nationals should have tried this “last game at RFK” promotion earlier — something like, “You had better come out here today because we might close it today, we might not.” They might have fooled enough people to push attendance over the 2 million mark, at least. The club instead finished just short — 1.96 million fans came to see baseball at RFK in 2007.

The failure to draw more falls squarely on the ownership of this team. That, however, is now in the past — along with the good times fans experienced here the past three years.

The Nationals gave fans cause to celebrate with a victory in their first game at RFK, and they came up big again yesterday in the finale, beating the Phillies 5-3. The Nationals posted a 122-121 record at home and gave fans their money’s worth.

The crowd stood and roared in the ninth. Owner Ted Lerner was on his feet as well, standing in the dugout next to manager Manny Acta. Lerner and Acta were waiting for the game to end so they could dig up home plate, a ceremony to mark the end of baseball at RFK and the start of the move to the new Southeast ballpark next year.

Closer Chad Cordero gave up a double to Chase Utley, struck out Shane Victorino, walked Ryan Howard and allowed an RBI single to Aaron Rowand. Acta stood in the dugout and thought, “Come on, Chief. [Lerner] is 81 years old. He doesn’t need to be put through this.” Cordero closed the show, striking out Wes Helms and Jayson Werth, and then baseball at RFK Stadium was over.

The players gave the jerseys off their backs to fans lucky enough to win a raffle. Acta, tapping his heart, told the crowd RFK always will mean something to him because it was the first place he worked as a major league manager.

A group of Washington Senators, including the beloved Frank Howard, took the field before the game. Dick Bosman, the starting pitcher for the last Senators game at RFK on Sept. 30, 1971, threw out the first pitch.

“I think coming here for the opener in 2005 was nice, but this is even nicer. It brings closure to this place the way it ought to,” Bosman said. “You have some of us guys who were here when it was over for the first time back here, and you have a bunch of new kids going into the new ballpark, and that is right.”

Fans didn’t tear apart the field yesterday, as they did in 1971. But people sought out their little souvenirs, even though the stadium isn’t going anywhere and neither is the team.

One man who had to be in his 60s tried to peel a Washington Nationals sign off a peanut stand on a concourse. He did so ever so slowly, looking to see whether anyone was watching him. Just as the last piece was about to come off, a security guard came along and informed him he couldn’t take it with him.

The man was wearing a T-shirt that read, “There’s no place like Ebbets Field.” Today is the 50th anniversary of the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn. The man obviously knows about loss. So do Washington baseball fans.

Even though there could have — and should have — been more fans at RFK these past three seasons, the numbers look downright impressive when compared to those of D.C.’s baseball past.

In 13 seasons of baseball at RFK — the Senators from 1962 to 1971 and the Nationals from 2005 to 2007 — 13.6 million fans came to watch baseball. That means nearly half of them — 6.7 million — came during the Nationals’ short stay at the stadium. That alone validates the return of major league baseball to Washington.

Even with a lost generation of hometown baseball fans and a smelly old stadium that housed an orphaned team of misfits, millions of people still came to cheer, boo, bounce in the stands and share with strangers a sense of community and connection.

There are memories of those communities of fans with the Senators and the Redskins and now with the Nationals and continuing with D.C. United. That is the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

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