We added one more baseball trip to the end of the 2005 season. For years, the Montreal Expos, a team owned by MLB, threatened to leave the Canadian city. The franchise never recovered from the baseball strike in 1994, when they were arguably the best team in the game. Since that time, attendance dwindled, and their home park, Olympic Stadium, had fallen into disrepair (which we saw for ourselves in 2001).
Finally, the franchise moved to Washington, DC, for the 2005 season. At the time, DC did not have a baseball only stadium ready for the newly renamed Nationals (ground won’t be broken on Nationals Park until 2006). In the interim, the Nationals were slated to play their home games at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium (informally known as RFK). Once the home of the MLB Washington Senators and the NFL Washington Redskins, RFK was the home of the local MLS franchise, but hadn’t hosted NFL or MLB games for some time.
As result, it had also fallen into a degree of disrepair. Still, MLB was keen to move the franchise, and the Nationals would play their games at RFK. Since the ballpark was only about a four hour drive from central NJ, we decided to make the visit a day trip. The drive was uneventful, outside of the traffic that one encounters in the DC area. Arriving at the ballpark about the time the games opened, we quickly became aware that RFK Stadium was not in one of the finer neighborhoods of DC, so we did not wander far from the ballpark.
Parking as ample, and arriving well before the first pitch, we had our choice of spots. A quick walk around the ballpark showed an aging multi purpose stadium that was enjoying something of a renaissance with the return of MLB action. It was clear that the park had seen better days, and from the perspective of the rebranded franchise, it was a just a place to play until their own park debuted in 2008.
Once inside, we got an idea of how long it had been since the stadium had been used extensively. Walking through the home plate gate, there were coaxial and Internet cables literally stapled to the concrete walls. Since the Nationals were only temporary tenants, it was clear that little in the way of infrastructure changes were forthcoming. Walking around RFK on the lower concourse, we were reminded of other multi purpose stadiums constructed during the same time frame (such as Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia or Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh).
Despite that, RFK seemed to have more in the way of character than the other coliseums from that time period. Unlike the other stadiums of that period, RFK seemed cozier (with a seating capacity just shy of 46,000), and sported a grass field. Like most stadiums from the 1960s, RFK was enclosed, giving it a retro feel when compared to the “newer” MLB ballparks.
Though there were not as many amenities as other ballparks, we managed to find a baseball lunch at one of the many concession stands and headed off to find our seats. Sunshine began to filter through the thick clouds (which prompted stadium officials to turn on the lights), and temperatures rebounded into the 70s, setting the stage for comfortable conditions for watching a ball game at the aging RFK Stadium.
With the season winding toward the end, and both the Mets and Nationals out of playoff contention, my attention turned to the Mets catcher Mike Piazza. Once among the most feared hitters in the game, age and nagging injuries resulted in a subpar campaign for the slugger. In the last year of his contract, it was unlikely that the Mets would try to resign him, so this game marked the last time we would see Piazza in a Met uniform in person.
Despite having nothing to play for in this game, most of the regulars were in the lineup for both teams. Starting for the Mets was right hander Kris Benson, who was completing an unspectacular 2006 campaign, his last in a Met uniform. For the hometown Nationals, the starter was right hander John Patterson, completing his season with a respectable 3.13 ERA.
Our seats, in the middle deck to the right of home plate, gave us a great view of the stadium. Soaking in the environment, RFK seemed like an anachronism, with earth tones colors reminiscent of the 1960s. Noticeably absent from the park was a large screen video board. Built long before such technology existed, the ballpark seemed almost naked without it. Reminding me of my younger days as a baseball, I found that I didn’t miss it.
Even with the clouds and threat of rain, there was a good crowd on hand for the Sunday matinee, with an announced attendance of over 29,000. It was obvious early that neither starting pitcher had his best stuff, as the Nationals and Mets traded runs through the first four innings. The scoring included a long solo home run to left field in the second inning by Mike Piazza, flashing some of the power from his heyday.
Piazza followed up his home run in the second inning with another solo home run in the fourth inning. It was almost as though he sensed the end was coming, and was rising to the occasion with a vintage Piazza power display. The teams traded runs throughout the middle innings, slowing the pace of the game to a crawl at times, as the teams made seven pitching changes.
During the down time, I took an opportunity to further examine the stadium. The outfield grass showed signs of wear, a victim of the hot and often dry DC summers, obviously neglected as the season reached its end. Though it was a relic, it reminded me of the ball games played in the “cookie cutter” ballparks I watched on TV as a kid, so there was a familiar vibe within RFK.
Hoping we would see a third home run from Mike Piazza, we were instead treated to a massive home run to deep right field by the young Mets first baseman Mike Jacobson in the eight inning. Initially, we thought the ball might clear the roof and completely exit the ballpark. Instead, it bounced off the roof and careened back onto the field. The home run gave the Mets a 6-5 lead, which the bullpen protected for a victory for New York.
Filing out of RFK following the game, I reflected on our visit. Though it was fun seeing a game in a throwback ballpark with its roots in the 1960s, there was little reason to return. Our next baseball visit to DC would be to see the new ballpark, which was more than two and one-half years in the future.