October 18, 2004

Back to RFK

Today's Musical Selection: "Born to be Alive" by Patrick Hernandez

Hello, everyone! Sorry about Friday... too busy at work to post during the day, then I was going to post at night and fell asleep. It was that kind of week. Today I want to tell you about the experience Papa Shaft and I had last Saturday, taking a trip to RFK Stadium, where Washington's baseball team will play next year.

The night we went, the DC United soccer team was playing a game, but neither or us cares about soccer. We went to experience the stadium, to whet our appetite for next April. And we did just that. Both of us are extremely jazzed about the idea of seeing our team playing in that stadium next season.

On the approach toward RFK from the Stadium/Armory Metro stop, I immediately noticed two things. First, the old stadium looks a lot better than I figured. RFK was the forerunner of the multi-purpose cylindrical stadium trend, but it's head and shoulders more attractive than the Vets and Riverfronts that came after. Rather than a dull circular roof, RFK has a dip in the front that makes the stadium look distinctive. Its facade is made of marble, which is far more appealing than the unbroken concrete of the later ashtray-style facilites. The entryway looks classy and distinctly Washington.

The second thing I noticed was that the stadium was in the middle of nowhere. In order to get to RFK, you have to walk down a long, tree-lined avenue next to the DC Armory. The trees look nice, but (1) they block your view of the stadium and (2) there's not enough room between them for people to gather. The avenue has the effect of isolating RFK (it's surrounded by an ocean of parking spaces on the other side), preventing it from tying into the surrounding neighborhoods. Unsurprisingly, there's no sports bars or nightlife nearby. During the game, United announced that fans desiring a post-game hangout spot should meet at Fado, which is in Mount Vernon Square, halfway across town. A good stadium revitalizes the neighborhood around it. That didn't happen with RFK because there is no neighborhood around it.

Once we got closer, though, my heart began to beat faster. One thing about facilities like RFK... they exude sports. You take one look at a stadium like that, you know instantly what it's for. I got all tingly just envisioning baseball taking place there in a few months.

We bought our tickets and entered the concourse, and it was like stepping back in time. The old section markers, the dim lighting, the walls painted in a shade of blue not popular since 1967, the plainly exposed piping and ductwork... for better and worse, RFK is a stadium from a bygone era. Even the newer features, like the plastic-coated TV consoles and the signs announcing the concession stands, feel dated. The concourse smelled of popcorn and beer from ballgames past, and it was easy to imagine that it was 1964 instead of 2004. And as far as I'm concerned, that's a good thing. RFK is one of the last venues from a certain age of baseball, and in an era of manufactured history and retro-style parks, it's nice to have a stadium that's unapologetically genuine. I get fatigue as I travel from one new ballpark to another; the wrought-iron gates, cutesy quirks and skyline views all start to blend together after a while. RFK is a mid-century ballpark, and I'm grateful for it.

We walked down into the main seating bowl, and that's where RFK really shows its age. The burgundy, orange and yellow paint is chipping off the seats, the painted-on-concrete section numbers are especially dated and tacky, and the lower deck is backed by featureless concrete walls bearing no decorating save some blue paint. No concession stands with views of the field while you wait, only a smattering of ads, really nothing to catcht he eye at all. Even the right-field wall, once the home of the very cool Washington Post scoreboard, is now bare save for a couple soccer displays. The Ring of Honor, paying tribute to Washington sports legends, remains intact, but the signs are dull and faded and only highlight the lack of pizzazz around the park.

And yet... the seats are surprisingly comfortable (though lacking cupholders, to which I've become accustomed), there's plenty of leg room (an especially welcome development for the long-legged Papa Shaft), and the sightlines are terrific from all around the stadium. The stadium also holds in the noise very well, which makes even a small crowd sound raucous (the boisterous but sparse crowd at the United game sounded like a gathering twice its size thanks to RFK's acoustics).

And as I looked at the spot where home plate will stand, imagined the outfield fence to come, glanced up at the sloping roof over the upper deck and the ligth standards above... well, as I said aloud to Papa, "It feels like baseball's here already. Baseball belongs here." He just nodded. We both saw the stadium's potential.

Although my opinion of soccer as a sport improved not one whit during the game I witnessed, let me say this: I hope that our baseball fans in Washington will be as enthusiastic as the crowd we saw that night. The fans maintained a buzz practically from start to finish, which at least kept me awake. Of particular note was the fan-club section next to us, which had a giant drum that kept up a beat throughout the game. When we first sat down and I heard the drum, I thought I'd hate it. But I came to enjoy it as the night wore on, along with the festive and creative chants directed at the field (although I could have lived without the "You suck, asshole!" chants, and judging by the look on the face of the guy who was sitting behind me with his school-age children, I gather I wasn't alone). If our fans are as excited and as passionate as the fans we saw that night, RFK is going to rock (literally -- some of the stands are retractable and they tend to bounce when the fans get going).

Shortcomings? The scoreboard and sound system both need work; if left as-is, they'll easily be the league's worst (though Papa pointed out that the right-field videoboard, though small, is very sharp). The concessions could also use a major upgrade: my hot-dog was missing half its bun, certainly not worth the 10-minute wait while the clueless concessionaire tried to find the dogs. And they only had yellow mustard, not brown, which is nearly an unpardonable sin in my book. My Pepsi was, even by ballpark standards, awfully watery. Papa reported greater satisfaction with his popcorn, though not with the $7 charge for the popcorn and a bottled water.

Perhaps the worst part of the RFK experience, however, was the poor quality of the staff. Papa expressed his frustrations on this pretty well, so I'll turn it over to him:

This is where RFK really suffered. On entry, the ticket seller was downright listless, with a bored look on her face. The concession workers were nothing short of incompetent (not surprisingly, concessions at RFK are handled by ARAMARK)

The worst had to be the security people; within 10 minutes of the end of the game, they were standing in the aisles like the gestapo, herding people like cattle out of the stadium. When moving around the stadium to take pictures (mind you, not 10 minutes after the end of the game), I was accosted twice by these idiots, standing in front of my shot and repeating that their supervisor told them they had to clear out the stadium. (Mind you, I wasn't about to be pushed around by these $5.50 an hour slugs, so I simply aimed around them, got my shots and politely moved on) Before we left, I were on the first base side, trying to get a shot of the lone remaining dugout when a man near the portal called down to another guy near the dugout who had lost something. Seems like a pretty normal exchange, until the idiot security guy showed up. The exchange went something like this:

SECURITY SLUG: Sir, we're closing this section off. You need to go.
FAN: Okay, but wait a second, this guy down there lost something. (Calling out) Dave, what'd you lose?
SECURITY SLUG: Sir, you need to move.
FAN: Just hold on a second, will you? This guy lost something. (Another exchange with Dave, who apparently had a bag with something valuable in it swiped)
SECURITY SLUG: The stadium is being cleared out. The stadium is closed. You need to...
FAN: All right, look, you don't need to be rude about it....
SECURITY: I'm not being rude, you just need to go. You just keep moving.

Keep in mind that this was ten minutes after the end of the game. DC United players were still signing autographs near the home dugout. Apparently, these slugs had nothing better to do then flex their minimum wage muscles instead of showing the least ounce of compassion and understanding.

All of that is completely unacceptable, and will need to be changed before the baseball team gets here so that people actually enjoy their experience at the ballpark rather than feeling like they're surrounded by incompetents. Fortunately, most ballclubs (the Orioles included) hire their own ushers and ticket takers instead of contracting it out (I suspect these slugs were from Comcast Spectacor, and most were from Philadelphia rather than DC), so hopefully they will have better quality control over their employees. In the meantime, though, the employees at RFK are absolutely shameful.

I hope that Papa's right, and that the new regime will bring in new, more competent, more polite employees.

One last fun note: With time winding down in the second half (or winding up, I guess, since in soccer the clock counts up instead of down), I made a remark to the effect that we should enjoy these seats while we could, since we weren't going to get second-row seats for the baseball team unless one of us started dating the owner's daughter. Then we took a little closer look, and noticed the boards in front of us, the boards covering the dugout step. So our seats were actually on the third-base dugout. (The section we were in slides away when the park is converted for baseball.) Never mind dating the owner's daughter; unless the new team suddenly develops a need for a short junkballing left-handed reliever, I'll never have seats that good for baseball.

It took me back to an earlier time... in particular, 1993. The Orioles had recently abandoned Memorial Stadium in Baltimore for the gorgeous Camden Yards. That same year, the O's moved their AA farm club out of Hagerstown, Maryland, with the intention of moving them to Bowie. The stadium in Bowie wasn't yet ready, though, so the Baysox spent a season at old Memorial. Crowds averaging about 5,000 a night looked positively tiny in a stadium designed to seat 50,000. My family went one night, and it's an experience I'll never forget. Previously, I'd only experienced Memorial from the upper deck; this night, we had fourth-row seats. (We'd purchased seats about fifteen rows back, but we were herded into the front rows by a newspaper photographer who wanted the pictures to look better.) Every cheer, chant or whispered aside echoed throughout the park. We were all close enough to converse with the players in the Baysox dugout, and some folks did. (Glenn Davis, the outfielder, was in town on rehab after breaking his jaw; I remember his batting helmet with the leather strap under it, rather like an old-school football helmet.) At one point, the photographer decided he wanted a shot of the crowd chasing a foul ball, so he started tossing balls into the stands for us to fight over. (He tried to ask for them back afterward and was roundly booed.) My family didn't have the budget for VIP seats normally, so it was cool to live like a big shot for a day.

Sitting down over the dugout at RFK brought back those fond old memories, and tied into the time-warp feeling of the night. I can't wait to go back to the future next April.

In the past, I've railed with justification at the Washington Post's sorry Sunday Source section, which attempts to broaden the appeal of the newspaper to the moron population by using lots of pretty pictures and restricting itself to small words. My anti-Source position has not changed, but I have to give them a little bit of credit for this Sunday's edition. I now have a crush on this woman. And unlike most of my crushes, she is at least theoretically obtainable, since she's alive (a trait not shared by a surprsing number of my crushes), roughly my age and lives (I presume) locally. Do I wish now that I'd studied more astronomy in college? Absolutely.

Finally, I want to help draw attention to a growing menace highlighted by my man Frinklin yesterday. Yes, that's right, Celine Dion and Anne Geddes have collaborated on a celebration of babies and motherhood. I spotted this yesterday afternoon at my local Barnes and Noble, and I was as horrified as Frinklin. Anyone who ever suspected that the Apocalypse will be soundtracked by the grating strains of "My Heart Will Go On" knows all too well about Ms. Dion's oeuvre. You might not, however, be familiar with the work of Ms. Geddes. An acquaintance of mine had a Geddes calendar, and through it I became aware of the odd and frankly disturbing "art" for which she is famous. Essentially, Geddes dresses babies in nauseatingly precious little costumes and poses them in strange ways. I would not be at all surprised to discover that she is the high priestess of some bizarre baby-worshipping cult. The thought of those two combining forces chills me to the bone. For the love of God, if you care at all about the future of America, they must be stopped. Anyone with ideas on doing so, please leave a comment.

That's all for me today. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at October 18, 2004 05:58 PM
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