A new tradition in D.C. begins

Published April 14, 2005

WASHINGTON - The red and yellow wooden outfield seats of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, cracked and creaking with age and bleached by the sun to pale versions of what once were Redskins colors, get a welcome visit from the past today.

Thirty-four years after the Washington Senators left for Texas, baseball is back in the nation's capital, as the newly minted Washington Nationals play their home opener tonight against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

"When we left here in '71, I said they'd have baseball back in D.C. in five years," said former Senators slugger Frank Howard, now 68 and still in baseball as a scout and minor-league instructor for the Yankees. "It's 34 years later, but it's happened, and it's a historic moment in Washington sports history. Everybody in baseball is wishing them the best of luck."

Walk down E Capitol Street and you'll see baseball caps adorned with the same script "W" worn by the Senators in their final three years. For every old-school Nationals cap, you'll find another with a new logo, showing a white interlocking "DC" on a blue background with a red brim.

"The perception of D.C. is still one that existed 45 years ago, of this sleepy southern city of 800,000 people," Howard said. "Now you have 7.5-million people to draw from, major media coverage, and there's disposable income because it's the Silicon Valley of the east. There's a positive atmosphere around baseball here."

When D.C. last had baseball, the Montreal Expos were only 3 years old. The team's relocation was announced in September after years in franchise limbo.

Much has changed since 1971, though baseball hadn't transplanted another team until this spring. When the Senators played, stadiums were named for fallen patriots, not sponsors, though a reported deal would give the U.S. Armed Forces title sponsorship of what could be named National Guard Field at RFK.

RFK has been largely vacant since the Redskins moved to FedEx Field in 1997, its only tenant being Major League Soccer's D.C. United. The Nationals are expected to have a new home in 2008, and the architectural plan is to break away from the retro blueprint of recent ballparks.

Though the brick-and-steel design of Camden Yards is a good fit for Baltimore, it's hard to find a red brick in D.C. Instead, the new stadium, a riverfront venue in the southeast part of the capital, will have a glass-and-stone exterior, described as "part monument, part ballpark."

For now, D.C. is happy to have RFK and its relocated Expos, who finished above .500 in 2002 and '03 but went 67-95 last season. After an 11-4 win in Atlanta on Wednesday, Washington comes home with five victories in its first nine games.

RFK, about 2 miles east of the Capitol, can be easily accessed by D.C.'s Metro subway system, and with the cost of gas and parking still rising, many will take a quick trip on the Orange or Blue lines to the Stadium/Armory stop.

The team is strongly encouraging that route tonight, when weekday rush-hour volume, a sellout crowd and a first-pitch appearance by President Bush should merge to create troublesome traffic. Metro officials will wear shirts today that read, "Thanks for taking us out to the ballgame."

Washington has embraced its new team, with RFK's lower-level seating all but sold out this season. The Expos generated a reported $15-million in local revenue last season; that figure is expected to top $100-million this year in D.C.

More than 2.5-million fans are expected this season, and RFK's seating plan is priced for Republicans and Democrats alike, with prime seats behind home plate running $90 and upper-level outfield seats costing just $7.

At a time in which participation and interest in baseball is waning among African-Americans, the Nationals give baseball an opportunity to regain an important position with minority fans: The district's population is 57 percent African-American. Aside from winning the 1924 World Series, the city's only history of baseball success is with the Washington Grays, who won 10 Negro League championships while splitting time between D.C. and Pittsburgh. Frank Robinson, the Nationals' manager, became baseball's first black manager 30 years ago, but only two of his players, outfielders J.J. Davis and Terrmel Sledge, are black.

For now, fan support is not an issue. The team played an exhibition home game against the Mets on April3, with 25,000 braving 45-degree temperatures for a sneak preview of their team. It was, as importantly, a dress rehearsal for the stadium and its workers.

When the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks got new teams a decade ago, they had three years to prepare for their openers; the Nationals had seven months. Traffic into the stadium had expected delays, but most of fans' gripes came within RFK. Limited concessions led to long lines, and by the middle innings, many were out of coffee; others had hot dogs but no buns.

Those are easy fixes, and as with any team, long-term success with fans will need success on the field. The original Senators left for Minnesota in 1960, and their expansion replacements suffered through an 11-year run in Washington, finishing last seven times.

Howard, who worked with the Devil Rays in 1998-99, said the novelty of the Nationals will buoy fan interest, as will the attraction of a new stadium. After that, without establishing a winning tradition, the Nationals might have more in common with its Washington predecessors than a logo on a ballcap.

"I was with the Devil Rays, and we drew 2-million our first year," Howard said. "The aura of having baseball back will last a few years, and a new stadium will do that as well. Then you have to have a competitive product on the field. The fans, they love winners. But with continued improvement in their farm system, a few bona fide prospects, you can be very competitive here."