Designated HitterMay 19, 2005
What's Old is New
By David Pinto

Over the last fifteen years, the major leagues took on the task of rebuilding its infrastructure, the stadiums we enjoy visiting so much. From Philadelphia to San Diego, new construction brought us open concourses, more leg room, luxury boxes, video scoreboards, retractable roofs and higher taxes. In Pittsburgh, fans now have a view of the city skyline; in Denver, the snow covered mountains loom over the outfield fence even in July. You can bring your dog to PETCO and visit with Boog Powell in Baltimore. The new stadiums are more than just a place to watch a game; they're an event unto themselves.

It was a little different in Washington this weekend. I was invited down to attend the game on Saturday night, and I found that I liked RFK Stadium. The park was built in 1962 for the second version of the Washington Senators, born when the original team moved to Minnesota. It's the same stadium you saw in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, San Diego and still in St. Louis. And, believe it or not, I liked it. It's a park built with one thing in mind, to watch a sporting event.

It's easy to get to RFK. We took a subway ride from downtown and didn't need to change trains. It looked like there was a lot of parking at RFK, and it was located next to the highway. There were plenty of concessions, and although we were down the right field line, we had a nice view of the action. As I sat there watching the rain and then the action, I thought, why spend all that money on a new park when this was a perfectly reasonable place to play ball.

The Red Sox tried to get a new stadium for years. When the new ownership took over, it was clear to them that it wasn't going to happen. Instead, they looked inward to see what could be done with their existing building. The results are marvelous. The Green Monster seats are the hottest ticket in town. The right field roof, which was dangerous to stand on as late as the 1999 All-Star game (I was up there) is now a beer garden. Plans are in the works to add even more seating to the existing structure. So far, every change the Red Sox made improved the park. They're even going to get rid of the .406 Club, a poor improvement the old ownership installed. Slowly but surely the Red Sox are turning Fenway into a state of the art facility while retaining it's old time charm.

Why can't the Nationals do the same with RFK? If they move DC United to the Redskins home, you could make the seating baseball only. The stands that move for football could be made permanent and angled better for baseball sightlines. The useless outfield seats could be torn down and a lower level of bleachers could be added with a view past the outfield wall. Some clever architect could find a way to insert luxury boxes as well. And most importantly, the field can be torn up and replaced with a state of the art drainage system. The deluge I saw on Saturday night indicated the need for a way to clear the field of water quickly.

Baseball would also be preserving a part of it's past. Just as Wrigley and Fenway stand as monuments to the early intimate ballparks, RFK could stand as a reminder of an era of stadiums that were part of the scene for three decades. Camden Yards is no longer retro; it's become the norm. What's special about going to a new ball park anymore? They're mostly designed by the same people and have the same features. We appear to have replaced one set of cookie cutter parks with another. Granted, they are more fan friendly. They contain more nooks and crannies. There's more to do than in the old stadiums. But in a way the ballpark has become the event. "I'm going to Camden Yards," not, "I'm going to the ball game."

RFK is now the retro park. It's the type of stadium my generation grew up visiting. With Busch soon going the way of the wrecking ball, RFK will be the last of a breed. Rather than make it obsolete, let's fix the flaws. Let's leave it as a reminder of a generation's youth. Let's save the taxpayers of the nations's capitol some hard earned cash. RFK is a place where the game is the event. It would be nice to keep that in at least one venue.

David Pinto is the owner and author of Baseball Musings. David has been involved in baseball research professionally since 1990 when he was the STATS, Inc. consultant to ESPN's Baseball Tonight. The Day by Day Database at his site is fast becoming one of the most popular research tools on the web.

[Additonal reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]


It should be pointed out that DC United could not be moved to FedEx, because of width of field issues. That is, of course, only one of several problems with the OP -- as I believe Boswell has pointed out, all of the things we find appealing about RFK at this point will soon appear old, and updating it in any real way will cost almost as much as building a new stadium.

You were lucky in the concessions. In the lower seating bowl, there are two floors of concessions, so it's pretty easy going.

If you're on the top, though, there's only one level of concessions for the entire upper deck. The lines are a mess, and they're constantly running out of hot dogs and other supplies. And that's a flaw with the design of the stadium -- lots of small, isolated stands, without an easy supply line to them.

I had the same impression you did when I went there Opening Night. I thought it was a surprisingly good park. The more I'm around it though, the more I see its flaws.

I think if you went back, you'd see the same.

DC United are building their own stadium anyway, so that part of this is fairly moot.

If they weren't, though, isn't it a bit obnoxious to both the Redskins and DC United to move DC United out to FedEx Field (which, I might add, the Redskins paid for themselves)? The 'skins built the stadium without ever planning to share it, and DC United should be downtown, closer to most of their fan base.

Now, on to why RFK isn't a good long-term solution for the Nationals:

  • The place is, literally, falling apart
  • The concourses aren't large enough to put in real concession stands
  • At games that are sold out (or close to it), the concourses crowd up to dangerous levels
  • There's nothing around the park to do, and no way to put anything in -- not being able to take advantage of economic stimulation around a stadium would hurt quite a bit
  • The people who live around RFK probably won't stand for the team to be there long-term.
  • Driving down there on a weeknight is difficult at best (but the new stadium site will allow for water taxis and ferries, alleviating traffic concerns)

There are more, but I want to go have breakfast now.

One reason I can think of is the crown jewel of all new ballparks, luxury boxes. RFK does not have luxury boxes as they are thought of today. Luxury boxes are a huge cash cow for teams and it is something the Nationals would lack.

There will be no clever way to insert luxury boxes. The first step would be a clever way to update the electrical system. A clever way to update the phone system. A clever way to update the computer systems. A clever way to add plumbing in every box. A clever way to improve the heating/cooling systems in each luxury box. Before long your clever architect is going to hand you a clever bill that realistically could rival a new ballpark

Another issue ... the locker rooms. Right now, the locker rooms are marginally adequate for a short time period. But the facilities (locker room, training room, workout room) are nowhere near what you see in ballparks built in the 1980s. There are leaky ceilings. Cramped quarters. Circuitous routes to the manager's office. Yet more "renovation" to undertake. Your bill continues to mount, David

I understand the sentiment; I too feel strangely nostalgic for nondescript multipurpose pieces of crap from past generations. However, for many reasons stated above and for many more not stated above, there's not much here to support the sentiment.

As for this:
The Red Sox tried to get a new stadium for years. When the new ownership took over, it was clear to them that it wasn't going to happen. [. . . ] Why can't the Nationals do the same with RFK?

The consideration, while thoughtful from a certain angle, is completely irrelevant. The new ownership of the Nats (when in the undetermined future that blessed day occurs) will have clear knowledge that the new stadium WILL happen.

Which brings me to a last, general point, which I'll note is not specifically inspired by the above post: MLB teams over the past decade have been getting parks handed to them all over the place. The reasonableness or ethics of the practice is certainy in doubt, but why should the STOP sign arbitrarily be drawn at the Nats? I ask this especially because the nature of the DC area changes the details of this stadium plan.

david, great piece. i agree with you completely. all the issues these other posters are raising (luxe boxes, lock'r rooms, etc) can be addressed rather easily; all that's needed is the will. i grew up in stlouis, and you expressed my feelings about the soon-to-fall busch stadium very well in your article. thanks

"can be addressed rather easily"


There appears to be large leaps of faith on both yours and the author's part when it comes to what you are assuming will be 'simple renovations.'

My love of RFK is mystical. On a spiritual happiness scale, with a crowd of 35,000, I would be the happiest person there.

However, we signed a deal with MLB to build a new park, and we must honor what we signed. My love of that park must not take priority over the kid, born this very day, who will love the new park and not the decrepit, cramped, near-unsafe halls of RFK. In America, we build.


Team economics pretty much demand luxury boxes to survive, and you can't expand RFK's existing Mezzanine level seating area and turn it into luxury boxes because the superstructure of the stadium is in the way. There just isn't enough depth to create a true luxury box with a lavatory, wetbar, adequate seating, etc. The square footage doesn't exist. And even if it did, you can't compromise the structural integrity of the upper deck in order to try and make room.

The inability to build luxury boxes is, by far and away, the main reason why MLB insisted on a new ballpark. It was nonnegotiable for a reason -- RFK just can't meet that criteria, no matter how hard a designer would try.

RFK Stadium will be 44 years old Oct. 1 (its first event was a Redskins-Giants game; baseball didn't play there until '62). I've been to a half-dozen Nationals games there so far, and while it has an intimacy most multi-purpose stadia lack (with the seat colors, it's sort of a smaller version of the early Vet, albeit without artificial turf or the Phanatic), there's only so much you can do with it.

District officials want to avoid a Camden "retro" clone, and the new park will probably have many aspects of D.C. "monumental" architecture, highlighted by a view of the Capitol dome near the left-field line, and the fan-friendly bells and whistles of places like Citizens Bank Park. Add better Metrorail access at the Navy Yard station (it will be closer to Metro than RFK is, with plans for another entrance to alleviate the current postgame crunch at the Stadium-Armory station), and you'll have a great ballpark -- as long as they ignore the purists and don't put in green seats. (Given the site and team colors, they should be navy blue.)

Good article, but I agree with most of your respondants that RFK is not a viable option long-term for all the reasons mentioned. Besides, unlike Fenway or Wrigley, it's ugly and there's nothing in that neighborhood for fans before or after the game. The new site will be on the water and help develop that part of town. Then they can doze RFK and try something totally new with that space.

I'd also like to stick up for DC United. I'm one of those rare people that likes baseball and soccer. DC United doesn't get as many fans as the Nats, but they don't deserve to just be kicked out of RFK like so many local sports talk folks suggest. If it weren't for United, RFK would not have had a tennant the last eight years and may have been torn down. So there'd be no stadium for the Nats. Plus they've won more championships than any other DC pro team lately, and they do routinely draw 15-20k - nothing to sneeze at.

FedEx field is not viable for soccer because it's not very accessible and the dimensions are wrong. They're trying to build a new stadium but that doesn't seem to be moving any faster than the baseball plan. In the meantime, perhaps they could try Byrd Stadium.?