Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Walk into RFK Stadium right now and it’s hard to believe major league baseball will be played on these grounds in a mere 81 days.

The field is nothing more than a vast expanse of packed dirt, with bulldozers making their way across what will soon be right field. Left field doesn’t exist at the moment — it’s hidden beneath a huge section of the lower deck that still must be moved by hand along two rusty tracks 90 degrees around the stadium’s interior edge.

The dugouts are inaccessible from the field, there’s no backstop, there are no foul poles or bullpens and the press box hasn’t been touched in years.

Outward appearances aside, RFK’s $18.5million facelift is on schedule. And according to Allen Lew, the recently hired CEO of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, renovations on the old girl will be completed before the Washington Nationals’ first game.

“We’ll get there,” Lew said. “We’ll get done in time. There’s no question in my mind.”

The Nationals plan to announce today that they will play host to an exhibition game at RFK on April 3 against a major league opponent. The game, which will benefit the team’s newly created charitable foundation, will serve as an important run-through for club and stadium officials.

“I’ll know [today] for sure, but I think we have found our opponent for that game,” Nationals president Tony Tavares said last night. “It’s a major fund-raiser for the new charitable foundation we’re setting up. Plus, it will give us a shakeout of the stadium.”

That’s assuming RFK is ready on time.

It has been no easy task, preparing the 44-year-old stadium to house a baseball team for the first time since 1971. It didn’t help matters when the District and MLB haggled for months over relocation of the Montreal Expos and construction of the new ballpark along the Anacostia waterfront.

Nor did it help when MLB shut down all club operations for a week last month while funding for a planned new ballpark in Southeast and the future of the franchise in Washington were up in the air.

Those issues now resolved, the city and the Nationals are working frantically to accomplish in three months what was originally conceived as a six- to eight-month project.

“We’re tight as a drum right now,” Lew said. “Every day is precious.”

City officials had a broad plan in place for years to turn RFK back into a viable ballpark. But they were hamstrung from doing anything to jump-start the process until the D.C. Council approved financing to make it happen.

Lew, who is overseeing the project, made sure some preliminary design work was done in advance. He met with Nationals officials and put together a list of “basic” projects that needed to be completed to satisfy MLB’s minimum stadium requirements. A second list of “optional” projects — things that weren’t essential but would enhance the gameday experience — was created as well.

Lew and his team wasted no time getting started once they were given the green light: Actual spade work on RFK began hours after the D.C. Council passed financing legislation Dec.21.

Though there are countless projects that must be completed, two issues are taking priority: refurbishing the playing field and reconfiguring the lower-deck seating area. Everything else — fixing up locker rooms, luxury suites and the press box, among other things — is taking a backseat.

“The field and the seating are the real deadline-sensitive areas,” Lew said. “If we get that on track, we’re 90 percent there.”

Workers tore up the grass soccer field that had been in use through the stadium’s last event: D.C. United’s Nov.6 MLS playoff victory over New England. They dug an extra 20 inches into the ground and rebuilt the field’s soil base. A new drainage system will be installed in coming weeks, and new sod is due to be installed next month. When finished, the rebuilt field will still sit about 10 inches below its predecessor.

Reconfiguring the lower bowl of seating is a more complex matter. RFK’s original baseball plans require the removal of a large section of temporary stands in the left-field corner — the famed bouncing bleachers from Redskins days of yore. That section, which now sits in pieces in the parking lot, will then be replaced by the permanent but movable stands that currently take up left field.

The section was designed to slide along two tracks around the corner of the outfield, where it then connects with the rest of the lower deck. Those tracks, however, haven’t been used in years and even when functional require substantial manpower.

Engineers determined the system still works, and the seats can be moved by hand. Lew, though, is hoping some sort of mechanical system can be devised to aid the process, which will have to take place anytime the stadium converts from a baseball to a soccer configuration.

It will take a minimum of 48 hours to reconfigure the stadium each time, but the Nationals and D.C. United have adjusted their schedules to allow for at least 72 hours between events this year.

“We’re trying to mechanize it, so every time we change it over, we don’t have to have an army of laborers,” Lew said. “We’re working on that. I’m hopeful it will get done.”

As this is being done, the sports commission is hurriedly conferring with Nationals sales executives to map out exact seat locations for the more than 16,000 season tickets purchased so far, no easy feat considering entire sections are still moving around. But notices recently were sent out to account holders promising precise seat locations by Jan.21 and asking for payment on season tickets by Feb.4.

“We’re very close to having all this worked out,” said David Cope, Nationals vice president of sales and marketing. “It’s been an intensive process.”

Once the field and seating projects are under control, officials will turn their attention to the optional projects. Much of the stadium, as Lew puts it, “needs to be touched up,” so new coats of paint will be added in certain locations. Bathrooms will be fixed up, broken TV monitors will be replaced, old carpeting will be torn up and new heating and cooling systems will be installed. Rough plans exist to construct a luxury lounge, not unlike the Acela Club at the MCI Center.

On the field, workers must install a backstop, two foul poles and the 8-foot outfield fence. Two bullpens must be constructed beyond the fence in right-center field. Final dimensions must be measured, though they’re not expected to differ much from RFK’s original ones (330 feet down the lines, 385 in the power alleys, 410 to center field).

Given the less-than-onerous home run dimensions and RFK’s intimate feel, engineers working on the stadium project the refurbished ballpark as a hitter’s haven.

Not all of these projects are the city’s responsibility, though. The Nationals will spend some of their own money to spruce up the stadium. They would like to add a few rows of premium box seats at field level, as well as state-of-the-art LED scoreboard displays along portions of the upper deck facade. The facade, however, is occupied by RFK’s historic ring of fame.

Concession stands also will be upgraded but at the expense of Aramark, which plans to spend up to $2 million on renovations. Ticketmaster is similarly pumping in some of its own money to upgrade its system inside the stadium.

All of this was originally supposed to be done by April14, the Nationals’ home opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks. But then the club decided to hold the April 3 exhibition game at RFK, pushing renovation deadlines up another 11 days.

Though Tavares said RFK will be ready for the exhibition, it’s clear Lew has mixed feelings about the extra game.

“The 14th was supposed to be the first home game,” he said. “Then they came back saying they’d like to do an exhibition game for charity. … When you’re counting days, 11 means a lot.”

The schedule may be compressed, but no one’s panicking. Crews are not working double shifts yet and aren’t expected to for at least another month. Tavares has given his blessing to the project, as has MLB and the manager overseeing all construction. On Monday, players association executive Gene Orza toured the stadium and gave the union’s approval.

“The players are very pleased with the level of detail that we’ve concerned ourselves with,” Tavares said. “And they’re confident we’ll get it done and up to Major League Baseball’s standards.”

Mother Nature is also lending her own hand. Planners feared nasty winter weather would slow down the renovation process, but to date no measurable snow has fallen, and temperatures this week might approach an astounding 70 degrees.

“I guess that means we’ll probably be done with everything this week, right?” Lew said as a joke.

Sometimes, it takes a little humor to combat stress.

• Staff writer Ken Wright contributed to this article.

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