What a great day at RFK
Fans pack the ballpark for a baseball game for one final time
WASHINGTON -- For three years, the nation's capital rediscovered baseball at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.
On Sunday, thousands of fans returned to pay their last respects to a temporary home that has become linked to permanent memories.
Analyzed as a baseball stadium, RFK is sorely lacking. It's a generic bowl of concrete built to hold any outdoor sport. The food selection is minimal, the sound system is from the era of eight-tracks and the video board is best viewed with binoculars.
But during the Nationals' stay, it transformed into something far greater than the sum of its parts. From the 2005 playoff chase to usher Ronald Simms dancing to "Sweet Caroline," fans have been shaking the old stadium since Day 1 -- quenching their 33-year thirst for baseball in the district.
On Sunday, the crowds streamed from the Metro's orange line to the entrances, as they took in one final baseball game at the old ballpark.
10:30 a.m. ET: The metal gates swing open, revealing a line of fans snaked around the building waiting to enter. After a security check and ticket scan, fans entering section 306 look up to see Ryan Church handing out commemorative T-shirts.
The Nationals have been dispatched to various entrances to greet people as they enter, surprising kids who suddenly find themselves face-to-face with their heroes.
"Good morning, guys," Ronnie Belliard said, offering a high-five to a young fan. "Hey there, little man."
A group of Phillies fans enter at section 213, and Austin Kearns hands them T-shirts. He even gives them to a pair of Mets fans.
"You're giving shirts to Mets fans?" he's asked. He responds, "At least they're not Phillies fans."
10:40 a.m.: Gil Wright is already in his seat -- section 309, row 9, seat 11. He's been in that same seat for about 20 games a year since baseball opened at RFK Stadium, and he's not going to miss this one.
While he has mostly pleasant memories of this stadium, he's looking forward to getting his seats at the new Nationals Park.
"This isn't a baseball stadium," Wright said. "The fences are so far out, the batters are always complaining. Of course, next year, it'll be the pitchers doing the complaining."
11:04 a.m.: At the entrance, players Justin Maxwell, Dmitri Young and Ross Detweiler are also handing out T-shirts. There appears to be too many celebrities in too small of an area.
Security guards are trying to keep control, yelling at fans to keep moving.
When Nats manager Manny Acta wrote up his lineup card on Sunday morning, he kept in mind that Maxwell, a University of Maryland star, was a local favorite.
"I think it's going to be special for him," Acta said. "He's getting to play in the last game here."
11:50 a.m.: D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty takes the field to address the crowd.
"We've got a great team, great players, great management and a great sports venue," Fenty said. "And we've got some great fans."
The man knows how to work a crowd. Fenty builds excitement for the nearly $600 million, city-funded stadium that will open in April 2008 on the banks of the Anacostia River.
12:05 p.m.: The symbolism is not lost on anybody as Ryan Zimmerman accompanies Frank Howard out to the field.
Howard was the star of the Washington Senators in his heyday, and his monster home run blasts have been commemorated with the white-painted seats in the outfield at RFK. Zimmerman is the Virginia-born star who has become the face of the Nationals franchise.
Other Senators are also introduced to accompany the Nationals to their positions, including Hank Allen, Don Loun, Ron Hansen, Chuch Hinton, Fred Valentine and Dick Bosman.
12:25 p.m.: Baseball is referred to as a sport for fathers and sons, and it's said that the best fans often get the worst seats. If both these things are true, Larry and Ned Hannon are two of the biggest fans in attendance.
Ned brought his father Larry to the game, and the two grabbed bratwursts before settling down in their seats -- just a couple rows from the top of section 513.
"It's beautiful -- a grand old stadium," Larry said. "You don't need all these modern amenities to have a great stadium."
Larry's memories of RFK are mostly football-related. He was a Baltimore Colts fan who came to Washington to watch Sonny Jurgensen and the Washington Redskins play.
The Hannons are Redskins fans now, but they'll be cutting it close if they want to catch today's football game. The Redskins play right after the Nationals at 4 p.m., about 10 miles east at FedEx Field in suburban Landover, Md.
"We'll just have to drive fast," Ned said. "Even if this goes to 14 innings, we're not leaving."
1:21 p.m.: The fans also came to see a losing streak end, but Sunday was not Teddy Roosevelt's day.
As the presidents' race began, pitchers in the Nationals' bullpen corralled the other three presidents to give Teddy an easy victory. However, Roosevelt jumped the gun and was seen on the video board running around the Nats' new stadium.
The loss, Teddy's 120th consecutive, was not taken well by the fans, who booed the other presidents, before chanting "We want Teddy" through the first at-bat after the race. George Washington picked up the victory, but Thomas Jefferson edged him out for the season title, 42-40, with Abraham Lincoln winning 36 times.
Not to be outdone, the Nats' other mascot, Screech the bald eagle, made his entrance on Sunday on a zipline, which was strung from the stadium's upper bowl.
1:40 p.m.: In addition to the festivities, there's also a baseball game being played. As the Nationals take a 1-0 lead into the fifth inning, it appears that the team has heeded manager Manny Acta's advice about tuning out the distractions.
"It helps that it's a day game and it's early," Acta said. "I think it's part of their job and responsibility to do things like be at the gates and welcome the fans here. They've supported this club since 2005, and they'll be there for the future. It's not all just about running around like kids. There's more than just playing baseball."
2:11 p.m.: When Acta was asked which feature of the stadium that he'd miss the most, his response came quickly: the bouncing bleachers.
"I just thought it was an old place that was falling down when people jumped up and down," he said. "I'll miss that. It's unique."
When the stadium opened in 1961, it was the only one in the country that could accommodate football and baseball, thanks to a set of bleachers that slid into position depending on the sport. But architects hadn't yet perfected the design, and the bleachers were not built as sturdy as the rest of the stadium.
So when the fans jump up and down, as they're doing right now for a D'Angelo Jimenez double, the stadium shakes. It's a feature that probably won't be incorporated into any new ballparks.
2:23 p.m: The good times never seemed so good.
Simms is on top of the Nationals' dugout doing his dancing routine to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," an act that he describes as "90 seconds of joy."
Simms has been coming to games at RFK since the Senators began play, and he was excited to get a baseball autographed by Howard and Bosman before the game. Once the gates opened, he spent the next hour greeting the fans in his section, many of whom he knows by name.
"It's a great family atmosphere down here," Simms said. "All the regulars know each other."
The rest of the stadium knows him on a more impersonal basis, as the man who puts on the show almost every night in his wraparound sunglasses. Simms said that he knows that "Sweet Caroline" originated in Boston, but he doesn't care, because "it's taken on a life of its own here in Washington."
3:05 p.m.: Teddy Roosevelt has arrived to a standing ovation. The attendance is announced at 40,519, which pushes the season attendance to 1,961,606. And if anybody is curious, the all-time RFK Stadium baseball attendance is 13,564,063.
Also on the numerical front, by holding on for a 5-3 victory, the Nationals finish with an all-time record of 122-121 at RFK.
Chase Utley will go down as the final player to hit a home run at RFK, with a solo home run in the first inning on Saturday night.
3:39 p.m.: Chad Cordero strikes out Jayson Werth to win the game for the Nats. Werth picks up a "golden sombrero" by striking out four times, imitating teammate Ryan Howard, who did likewise on Saturday.
3:45 p.m.: On-field ceremonies begin with a video clip of memories from RFK, while the grounds crew digs up home plate.
Television announcer Don Sutton is the emcee, as the players give their jerseys away to fans who won a raffle drawing. Sutton interviews several players, with the loudest applause going to Dmitri Young.
"That is a big compliment," Young said to the crowd. "It's been absolutely fabulous this season."
3:53 p.m.: Managing principal owner Ted Lerner joins Acta in removing home plate, which will be moved to the new stadium in 2008.
"This has been a very special day," Lerner said. "A lot of the people here are going to tell their grandkids about this."
One final ovation is given from the crowd before the fans begin to disperse.
4:35 p.m.: For the Nats players, the fun is just beginning.
The team's rookies arrive in the locker room to find that their clothes are missing. In their place are costumes picked out by the veterans. Many are quite revealing.
Catcher Jesus Flores was drinking from a bottle of water when he glanced at Maxwell, who was dressed in a ladybug outfit. The sight was enough to cause Flores to spit his water across the clubhouse. Of course, Flores is also a rookie, and he had his own outfit waiting for him.
"I'm just going to enjoy it," Flores said. "What can you do? It's just something that happens."
When the rookies are dressed, the veterans get out their camera phones and create enough blackmail to last until well after the players are retired.
5:40 p.m.: The Nationals' team bus leaves RFK Stadium. The rookies will be forced to wear their outfits during their train ride to New York, as well as into the team hotel.
Looking back at RFK Stadium, catcher Brian Schneider said that the Nats will be excited to move into the new ballpark, but they'll leave lots of memories behind.
"This place has a lot of history," Schneider said. "It means a lot to a lot of people who have been coming here for a long time."
Michael Phillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.