It’s been real, RFK

The circular shrine to crumbling concrete and peeling paint at 2400 East Capitol St. SE is about to lose its last reason for existence. More than 56 years after it opened, RFK Stadium will host D.C. United’s last home game–and then, with United moving to Audi Field next year, face a future of essentially nothing.

It’s been over 10 years since I’ve had a chance to inhale any of RFK’s fumes–since Sept. 23, 2007, when the Nationals closed out their three-year tenancy there with a 5-3 win over the Phillies. Beyond the win, the highlight of that afternoon was the “SHORT STILL STINKS” banner fans briefly hung from the outfield wall–a nod to the protest of fans at the Washington Senators’ final game at RFK in 1971 before villainous owner Bob Short moved the team to Texas.

Washingtonians tend to have long memories about RFK.

Mine start with the Rolling Stones concert I saw September of my freshman year at Georgetown, when anything east of Union Station seemed unimaginably distant from campus. I had neither the budget nor the interest to pay for tickets to any Redskins games–even though our NFL franchise wasn’t objectively cursed at the time–but I did make my way back to RFK for the occasional mega-concert: U2 in 1992 (still the best show I’ve seen there), the Stones again in 1994 and U2 for a second time in 1997.

For Generation X D.C., however, “RFK + concert” will always equal “HFStival.” That all-day music festival put on by the long-gone modern-rock station WHFS packed the stadium and its parking lots every summer in the mid 1990s. I attended it two or three times as a paying fan–then covered it for the Post in 1995, 1996 and 1997.

Seeing Soul Aslyum, Tony Bennett (!) and the Ramones close out that first show from the risers was definitely one of those “I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this” moments. So was taking a break from carrying a notebook around 1997’s show to try crowdsurfing for the first and only time.

I also saw one or two Skins games on other people’s tickets, then later went to a few D.C. United games, but it took most of the next decade before I got any regular acquaintance with RFK as a sports facility.

The Nats’ home opener in 2005 kicked off the place becoming a part of my life every summer for the next three years. I developed a profound acquaintance with the many ways a bad baseball team can lose games, along with how hot a 45,000-plus-seat concrete donut can get when no outside breeze reaches the stands.

But we did win a few games too. My favorite after the team’s debut: the Father’s Day victory over the Yankees in 2006, when Ryan Zimmerman belted a walk-off home run over the outfield wall and the place erupted in bedlam. I still don’t think I’ve ever heard RFK get so loud.

Sunday, I’m going to see if RFK’s last home team can win one more there. Soon enough, RFK will become like the old 9:30 Club’s smell or National Airport’s Interim Terminal–something D.C. types of a certain age laugh knowingly about more than they actually miss. But first, I want to see those stands bounce one more time. Vamos, United!

4/15/2018: I finally spotted an error or three and fixed them.

Our baseball team

The Washington Nationals a) exist, b) aren’t in last place in the National League East, c) have a winning record, d) lead the NL East, e) have the best record in the National League.

Each of those statements would have been exponentially more improbable at this point in 2004. By then, we’d long since gotten sick of parsing the mumblings of MLB suits about the chances of the Montreal Expos being rescued from their death spiral (no thanks to MLB’s absentee mismanagement) and transplanted to fill the baseball vacancy in the nation’s capital.

So after MLB finally acknowledged the obvious and moved the Expos here, my wife and I joined a group of friends in buying a 20-game partial season-ticket package.

In the Nats’ improbable first season in the District, we saw the team somehow dance around the flaws of a staff of aging veterans and trash-heap signings to reach the All-Star break first in the NL East, second in the NL. But then the wheels fell off the bus and the team scraped its way to an 81-81 finish.

(Barry Svrluga’s National Pastime remains the book to read about that season.)

Six straight years of losing followed, and we’ve renewed that 20-game plan for every one of them. The great thing about baseball is that even an awful team can show flashes of brilliance against a good one: I have never enjoyed watching a sports event more than when I was in the stands at a sold-out RFK on Father’s Day of 2006 to see Ryan Zimmerman beat the Yankees with a walk-off home run after Mike O’Connor and Gary Majewski had somehow limited their offense to 2 runs.

D.C. baseball has developed its traditions along the way, like Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smokes at RFK and Nats Park, the Presidents’ Race in the middle of the fourth, and having the late, great Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” ring out after a home run. And Metro is crowded with people wearing Nats caps and shirts on game days. That’s all I really wanted, after my city went 34 years without a team.

Now we’re getting something extra: a team that’s good. Really good. This is a new experience. The last time a baseball team in Washington had a winning season was 1969, when Ted Williams guided the Senators to an 86-76 record and I was -1 years old. For that matter, no major sports team in D.C. has gotten close to a championship since my Hoyas reached the Final Four in 2007.

I don’t quite know what it would be like to watch the home team playing deep into October. But I’d like to find out. Go Nats.