FIELD OF RENEWED DREAMS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When the poet Rudyard Kipling defined a man as one who keeps his head while all others around him are losing theirs, he could have been describing a clutch hitter - the Cal Ripken or Derek Jeter who tunes out the frenzy of a late-inning crowd, takes a nice, steady swing, and lines a game-winning single up the middle.

Or he might have been describing the sort of baseball people who rarely draw the fan adoration of a Ripken or a Jeter, let alone the allusions of poets. Tonight, when big league baseball finally returns to Washington after a 33-season absence, the game won't just be the coming-out party for slugger Brad Wilkerson or manager and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. The curtain will also rise on heroes of a less-heralded kind: the countless engineers, electricians, architects and others who have worked frantically since December to get the 44-year-old stadium up to speed for Opening Day.

"Things normally happen slowly in baseball," said one of those workers, Jimmy Rodgers, the team's head groundskeeper, standing in the emerald grass of his brand-new infield this week. "Teams are slow to mature. So are fields and pitcher's mounds. We really had to hustle to get this together."

Just days before President Bush would throw out the first pitch, that hustle - and not a few jitters - were in evidence as the Nationals and their governing body, the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission, raced to complete their work. In the front office, PR personnel had no time to speak with reporters. In the ballpark, workers were bolting down seats, rigging wiring, welding gates, testing scoreboards and slapping on final coats of paint.

Rodgers, like other workers on hand, seemed like just the kind of guy you'd want on deck with the game on the line. In his red Nationals jacket, the one-time college catcher took a look around the spruced-up field, smiled wearily and summed up the chaos.

"Good people working here," he said with a shrug. "That's what matters. This has come together well. If we had to play the game tonight, we could do it."

Rodgers loves the "agrarian" nature of the game. An unassuming former English major who grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm, he has tended ball fields at the Florida Marlins spring training complex and run the grounds crew at the University of Virginia.

For him, success lies in tending to details - the particulars of a fine infield, for example.

"Ninety percent of baseball happens on clay," he says, momentarily shutting off the high-powered hose he was using to water the grass. "I haven't had a chance to get feedback from my players yet, but I'll stay in touch with them, working to get the moisture and compaction the way they like it. There's no magic formula to it, but after you work with infields for a while, you do get a feel."

He doesn't claim more than his share of credit for the rest of the field, which was built by a man he holds in awe - Roger Bossard of the Chicago White Sox, renowned in baseball for his knowledge of grasses, drainage and soils. When Bossard arrived at RFK in early March, "everything you see here was a hole in the ground, 16 inches deep," Rodgers says. "He built an incredible field - the irrigation, the pitch in various places for drainage, the root zone. It was an intense and precise enterprise."

So is Rodgers' job. The Nationals share RFK with D.C. United of Major League Soccer, making it one of only four multi-use stadiums in the majors. The soccer team has 18 home games this year, and, since the two sports' seasons overlap, Rodgers is in charge of converting the field from one sport to the other and back again.

Each time, his crew will, among other tasks, have to place fresh sod over the baseball clay, trimming and beveling the turf's edges so it will fit evenly. The pitcher's mound, which rests on a circular metal plate just below the playing surface, will be lowered hydraulically into a cavity, filled and sodded over for soccer, then raised back up for baseball again. "It does seem like a lot," he says, wiping the sweat from his brow.

And there are, as ever, aesthetic concerns. The outlines from a soccer field were still visible on the outfield grass earlier this week. "We'll do our best to cover those lines," he says. "We'll hose them, power-wash them, drop the mower level down a quarter of an inch and mow deeper, and then finish it off with a green dye. It won't be perfect, but it'll look very, very good."

He excuses himself and returns to work, crouching over two assistants as they carefully spray-paint the word "Nationals" into the grass behind home plate.

A photographer draws near, camera in hand. Rodgers shoos him away.

"I just finished training them to do this," he says gently. "Do you mind? I really don't want them to be nervous."

On the warning track in left-center field, just below the 380 sign on the green-padded wall, Paul Oakes stands deep in thought.

With his goatee, shaved head and David Ortiz physique, the former college baseball slugger contemplates an aspect of the national pastime few fans ever think about, but one that pays the bills.

How, exactly, will he hang the Bud Light sign that is to occupy this wall for the next 81 games?

Like most of today's decisions, this one mixes art and pragmatism. Oakes, Western Maryland College's designated hitter in 2001, works for Perceptual Motion, an ad firm in Aberdeen that hangs clients' signage at Camden Yards, Ripken Stadium and elsewhere.

He must focus on his 6-foot-tall sign - printed on what he calls a "thin, high-tech, fancy vinyl sticker" - as closely as Rodgers does on soil. It comes in panels, each as wide as the sections that make up the outfield fence. Oakes will overlap them by an inch and a half, allowing for seamless alignments of the lettering. "This takes a very, very artistic eye," he says.

He runs a hand along the surface. Smooth vinyl padding on a flat wall is easy, he says, especially compared with last week's task, wrapping a clothing company's sign on six VW bugs. "That was different," he says.

As the sun begins to set, the outfield wall is soon festooned with other signs - a blue one for Geico, a McDonald's ad that shimmered red in the sun. ("Welcome, Nationals ... I'm lovin' it," it reads.) As Oakes waits for stadium workers to hose off his area of the fence, he points to other placards. "Just think of all the revenue," he says.

He pauses to admire the work that went into converting the centerfield clock into a huge, blue-and-white Nationals logo. "Nice job covering the rivets," he says. "That's all vinyl. You'd be surprised how much vinyl is involved in advertising."

By late afternoon, his sign is affixed - no wrinkles, no bubbles - and Oakes is getting ready to plaster more on top of the two dugouts.

If Rodgers' specialty is the field, and Oakes' is vinyl, Leroy Wilkerson's is cleanliness. On Monday morning, the RFK custodian started with his crew of three in the very top row of seats. By Tuesday afternoon, they've made their way to the fourth row behind home plate.

He adjusts his red Nationals cap, with the cursive "W" on the front, and shuts off his hose.

"I've been at this four years now," says Wilkerson, whose crew sprays down every seat and row after each RFK event. "Soccer, disco, bands, whatever it is - now it's baseball. If there's people in here, we wash it down."

Wilkerson plays down his contribution - "it's just a job," he says - but like Rodgers, Oakes and even, perhaps, a good ballplayer in the clutch, he exemplifies the principle of making haste slowly.

After every event, his crew is given two days to sweep out the rows, bag all the trash and spray their way, section by section and level by level, down to the field.

As Opening Day approaches, Wilkerson isn't panicking any more than his cohorts elsewhere in the ballpark. He shrugs, turns his hose back on, and speaks words that seem especially apropos for a town that will see a 34-year baseball drought come to an end when the Nats and Diamondbacks take the field this evening.

"Stay at it and do the job right," he says. "Eventually, you're going to get there."

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