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Fences at RFK Stadium driving hitters up a wall

By Jeff Barker

Sun Staff

Originally published July 19, 2005

 

WASHINGTON - It was the second inning, and the Washington Nationals trailed the New York Mets 1-0. But not, it seemed, for long.

 

Vinny Castilla, Washington's third baseman, lifted a drive off Mets starter Kris Benson that seemed poised to clear the RFK Stadium fence in left.

 

But something happened on the way to a home run. The ball stayed in play and a surprised Castilla pulled into second with a double.

 

Whatever befell Castilla's shot in the July 7 game - an unfavorable wind, humidity or a "380" mark on the fence that stadium consultants say might be slightly off - seems to have victimized RFK batters all year.

 

Nobody can quite explain why there had been just 45 homers hit at the stadium heading into the All-Star break, marking baseball's lowest total. Or why the renovated, 44-year-old stadium plays like Bryce Canyon and has become one of the game's best pitchers' parks.

 

A relatively big park, RFK figured to favor pitchers - but not by this much.

 

Some of the Nationals have come to believe the field's dimensions are bigger than advertised, particularly in the left-center and right-center power alleys that have become notorious for gobbling up promising fly balls. The players' suspicions are the product of their periodic frustrations at the plate and the knowledge that contractors had to rush to complete an $18.5 million renovation to get the stadium ready for Opening Day. The Nationals are the first team to play a regular-season baseball game at RFK since 1971.

 

Castilla did an abbreviated Sammy Sosa-like hop and paused to gaze at the ball he hit in the Mets game. He said he couldn't have hit it much better.

 

His teammate, Matt Cepicky, could relate. Cepicky, now playing for Triple-A New Orleans, also doubled to the gap in left-center in the game and was feeling a little robbed.

 

"It says 380 [feet], but it can't be," Cepicky said with a half-smile after his shot fell shy of the wall, and the Nationals lost another homer-free game, 3-2. "That's all I've got," the outfielder, who is 6 feet 2, 215 pounds, said of his drive.

 

The 45 homers were less than one-third the total of Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark, which had 141 home runs and ranked first in the majors.

 

There were no homers again last night - just more long outs - when Washington began a homestand against the Colorado Rockies with a 5-4 loss.

 

"Something's different," said Jim Hannan, a former Washington Senator who pitched at RFK during its first incarnation from 1962 through 1970 and said it played "fair." In fact, the stadium was then known for the upper deck seats painted white to mark where Senators slugger Frank Howard's moon shots landed.

 

"The configuration is the same one we played, so I don't know what it is," said Hannan, who has been to a handful of Nationals games. "The ball seems like it carries to right pretty good, but left to center it just doesn't. I saw [Jose] Guillen hit one to left-center, and it jumped off the bat sky-high and looked like a [Harmon] Killebrew shot. But it sort of came straight down."

 

Said Hannan: "One difference is they have the JumboTron [outfield scoreboard] in there now, and I wonder if that has changed the air currents up there."

 

Like Cepicky, Guillen, the Nationals' home run leader, has also questioned whether the dimensions are correctly marked. He had 18 home runs heading into the All-Star break - 17 of them on the road.

 

Stadium architects and consultants say the ballplayers' skepticism about the 380 signs may technically be warranted.

 

"Here's a little secret for you," said Lane Welter, a Washington-based architect for HNTB, which designed the RFK renovations. "The 380 mark could technically be off for a number of different reasons."

 

Among them: The 8-foot-high outfield fence from left to center must be periodically taken down when the field is converted from baseball to soccer.

 

Said Welter: "It is potentially possible that the 380 mark could get moved a little depending on how they take the fence down and where they put it back up."

 

Before the Nationals' April 14 home opener, Major League Baseball dispatched Ellicott City-based consultant Murray Cook to ensure the field met specifications.

 

Cook inspected the bullpens and dugouts and checked the field dimensions with a 300-foot tape measure.

 

RFK's field checked out as 410 feet from home plate to center and 336 feet down the lines. But Cook said he was unable to verify the stated distance to the power alleys because "the wall was not totally installed."

 

Both Welter and Cook say that if the 380 signs are off, the disparity wouldn't be enough to make much of a difference in home runs.

 

Nationals president Tony Tavares agreed. "Is it possible they've moved? Slightly. But we're not talking about 400 feet."

 

In any case, the stadium wouldn't be in violation because, according to Cook, "the rule book really gives no indication of how deep the alleys should be. Most are somewhere between 370 and 380."

 

RFK is a symmetrical ballpark, which can hurt power hitters because there is no "short porch" or other quirky design favoring the long ball. It differs from asymmetrical Camden Yards, which averages more homers than RFK and is 333 feet down the left-field line but 318 feet down the right-field line.

 

"[RFK] is a big ballpark first and foremost," Tavares said. "Of the home runs I've seen hit, I've seen only two - maybe three - over the center-field fence, and everything else down the lines."

 

Tavares said he doesn't know how Washington's infamous humidity is affecting fly balls. Though some believe the heavy air keeps home runs down, Cook says it may actually help power hitters because "humidity is the moisture rising from the earth, so it's an uplift."

 

Tavares has no plans to move the fences in.

 

"The bottom line is this suits our team - look at our home record [30-14]," Tavares said. "Every one of our fielders runs well and gets a jump on the ball. And we don't have a ton of power in our lineup. I don't want to change a thing."

 

Cook said he had some advice to relay to any hitters who might complain: "Tell them to swing harder."

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Yeah but for every ball gobbled up in the OF that the Nationals have hit the opposing team has about 5 of the same. Theve been lucky all year and when the luck is starting to swing the other way they divert their losings by blaming their field and Contractors. Come on just accept the fact that you have overachieved all year

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What's the White Sox excuse for being the damn lamest, shittiest excuse for a franchise over the last 80 years?

 

What's your excuse for getting no girly action or having a life whatsoever?

 

Oh, and the Tigers just aren't that good.

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Guest Fritz

when losing starts the excuses come out

865422[/snapback]

 

What's the Marlins excuse?

865557[/snapback]

No heart. Crappy management. Terrible use of farm system.

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What's the White Sox excuse for being the damn lamest, shittiest excuse for a franchise over the last 80 years?

 

What's your excuse for getting no girly action or having a life whatsoever?

 

Oh, and the Tigers just aren't that good.

865877[/snapback]

 

Our excuse is bad ownership.

 

Your excuse for false name calling is something I would prefer not to know, but i'm sure it has to do with the co-runner of your inactive site.

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What's the White Sox excuse for being the damn lamest, shittiest excuse for a franchise over the last 80 years?

 

What's your excuse for getting no girly action or having a life whatsoever?

 

Oh, and the Tigers just aren't that good.

865877[/snapback]

 

Our excuse is bad ownership.

 

Your excuse for false name calling is something I would prefer not to know, but i'm sure it has to do with the co-runner of your inactive site.

866185[/snapback]

 

haha. ok.

 

Let's see. I post the "whats the Marlins excuse" to try and squash the excessive Nationals hate due to the fact that they are ahead of the Marlins in the standings. This is done by some of more ignorant people on here. It's immature. Almost as immature as thinking you're an e-badass because your favorite baseball team is winning.

 

All I'm saying is get off your f***ing high horse. Because you cheer for a team with a winning record gives you no more credibility as a human being. You MUST figure this out...I used to like you until you got this false self esteem because of the White Sox's performance. Stop being a douche and then you may get some respect.

 

And I really could care less what you say about that "inactive site" because that is just a "for fun" thing on the side. My life doesn't revolve around baseball and sports...you know, I actually have a life outside of that. Say what you want about the Tigers, I could care less...they've sucked for a long time. But, if they were 30 games above .500, you know what, I wouldn't think I pissed ginger ale.

 

Immature. That's all it is.

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What's the White Sox excuse for being the damn lamest, shittiest excuse for a franchise over the last 80 years?

 

What's your excuse for getting no girly action or having a life whatsoever?

 

Oh, and the Tigers just aren't that good.

865877[/snapback]

 

Our excuse is bad ownership.

 

Your excuse for false name calling is something I would prefer not to know, but i'm sure it has to do with the co-runner of your inactive site.

866185[/snapback]

 

haha. ok.

 

Let's see. I post the "whats the Marlins excuse" to try and squash the excessive Nationals hate due to the fact that they are ahead of the Marlins in the standings. This is done by some of more ignorant people on here. It's immature. Almost as immature as thinking you're an e-badass because your favorite baseball team is winning.

 

All I'm saying is get off your f***ing high horse. Because you cheer for a team with a winning record gives you no more credibility as a human being. You MUST figure this out...I used to like you until you got this false self esteem because of the White Sox's performance. Stop being a douche and then you may get some respect.

 

And I really could care less what you say about that "inactive site" because that is just a "for fun" thing on the side. My life doesn't revolve around baseball and sports...you know, I actually have a life outside of that. Say what you want about the Tigers, I could care less...they've sucked for a long time. But, if they were 30 games above .500, you know what, I wouldn't think I pissed ginger ale.

 

Immature. That's all it is.

866202[/snapback]

 

Well at least you weren't pathetic and calling names this time.....and my apologies you seem to think your the only person that can say something online and still have a life, your misconception I guess.

 

And with all the s**t people like you talk to me, it's kinda fun to get back when my team finally does something, but I guess it's no fun when your team is the one that sucks, is it?

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What's the White Sox excuse for being the damn lamest, shittiest excuse for a franchise over the last 80 years?

 

What's your excuse for getting no girly action or having a life whatsoever?

 

Oh, and the Tigers just aren't that good.

865877[/snapback]

 

Our excuse is bad ownership.

 

Your excuse for false name calling is something I would prefer not to know, but i'm sure it has to do with the co-runner of your inactive site.

866185[/snapback]

 

haha. ok.

 

Let's see. I post the "whats the Marlins excuse" to try and squash the excessive Nationals hate due to the fact that they are ahead of the Marlins in the standings. This is done by some of more ignorant people on here. It's immature. Almost as immature as thinking you're an e-badass because your favorite baseball team is winning.

 

All I'm saying is get off your f***ing high horse. Because you cheer for a team with a winning record gives you no more credibility as a human being. You MUST figure this out...I used to like you until you got this false self esteem because of the White Sox's performance. Stop being a douche and then you may get some respect.

 

And I really could care less what you say about that "inactive site" because that is just a "for fun" thing on the side. My life doesn't revolve around baseball and sports...you know, I actually have a life outside of that. Say what you want about the Tigers, I could care less...they've sucked for a long time. But, if they were 30 games above .500, you know what, I wouldn't think I pissed ginger ale.

 

Immature. That's all it is.

866202[/snapback]

 

Well at least you weren't pathetic and calling names this time.....and my apologies you seem to think your the only person that can say something online and still have a life, your misconception I guess.

 

And with all the s**t people like you talk to me, it's kinda fun to get back when my team finally does something, but I guess it's no fun when your team is the one that sucks, is it?

866237[/snapback]

 

I talk s*** to you???

 

Did I mention the White Sox in this thread before you said anything in here? No.

 

The Tigers have sucked for a long time, so there goes that little pointless drivel you spoke of. I'm seriously wasting my time right now. Again, you have a large head based on the performance of the White Sox and that is beyond lame.

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Yeah but for every ball gobbled up in the OF that the Nationals have hit the opposing team has about 5 of the same. Theve been lucky all year and when the luck is starting to swing the other way they divert their losings by blaming their field and Contractors. Come on just accept the fact that you have overachieved all year

865424[/snapback]

Maybe. But those two natural centerfielders in Church and Wilkerson and mobile strong armed rightfielder (Guillen) have needed any luck.

 

 

It's the air currents at RFK. There's a force field about 10-20 feet from the wall.

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What's the White Sox excuse for being the damn lamest, shittiest excuse for a franchise over the last 80 years?

 

What's your excuse for getting no girly action or having a life whatsoever?

 

Oh, and the Tigers just aren't that good.

865877[/snapback]

 

Our excuse is bad ownership.

 

Your excuse for false name calling is something I would prefer not to know, but i'm sure it has to do with the co-runner of your inactive site.

866185[/snapback]

 

haha. ok.

 

Let's see. I post the "whats the Marlins excuse" to try and squash the excessive Nationals hate due to the fact that they are ahead of the Marlins in the standings. This is done by some of more ignorant people on here. It's immature. Almost as immature as thinking you're an e-badass because your favorite baseball team is winning.

 

All I'm saying is get off your f***ing high horse. Because you cheer for a team with a winning record gives you no more credibility as a human being. You MUST figure this out...I used to like you until you got this false self esteem because of the White Sox's performance. Stop being a douche and then you may get some respect.

 

And I really could care less what you say about that "inactive site" because that is just a "for fun" thing on the side. My life doesn't revolve around baseball and sports...you know, I actually have a life outside of that. Say what you want about the Tigers, I could care less...they've sucked for a long time. But, if they were 30 games above .500, you know what, I wouldn't think I pissed ginger ale.

 

Immature. That's all it is.

866202[/snapback]

 

Well at least you weren't pathetic and calling names this time.....and my apologies you seem to think your the only person that can say something online and still have a life, your misconception I guess.

 

And with all the s**t people like you talk to me, it's kinda fun to get back when my team finally does something, but I guess it's no fun when your team is the one that sucks, is it?

866237[/snapback]

 

I talk s*** to you???

 

Did I mention the White Sox in this thread before you said anything in here? No.

 

The Tigers have sucked for a long time, so there goes that little pointless drivel you spoke of. I'm seriously wasting my time right now. Again, you have a large head based on the performance of the White Sox and that is beyond lame.

866242[/snapback]

 

Do you think I have a large head in real life based on the White Sox?? I'd hope not...this little message board is 100 percent seperate of my life since I have no "real life" friends here, it's just a place I can talk sports.

 

They are non related, now if you think it's sad I have a big head here based on the White Sox, ok then I guess you have the right to think so.

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Yeah but for every ball gobbled up in the OF that the Nationals have hit the opposing team has about 5 of the same. Theve been lucky all year and when the luck is starting to swing the other way they divert their losings by blaming their field and Contractors. Come on just accept the fact that you have overachieved all year

865424[/snapback]

Maybe. But those two natural centerfielders in Church and Wilkerson and mobile strong armed rightfielder (Guillen) have needed any luck.

 

 

It's the air currents at RFK. There's a force field about 10-20 feet from the wall.

866246[/snapback]

Does that force field aid in the war on terrorism

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I hope to god you don't act the same in real life. I can respect that if you don't. However, I think how you act on here is pretty much a mirror on how you are in real life. If you don't think that, then well, we disagree on the subject.

 

and the whole "have no life" thing is true if sports produce these fluctuations in your attitudes and self esteem levels in your non-online life...you're life is too damn consumed by your favorite sports teams.

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What's the White Sox excuse for being the damn lamest, shittiest excuse for a franchise over the last 80 years?

 

What's your excuse for getting no girly action or having a life whatsoever?

 

Oh, and the Tigers just aren't that good.

865877[/snapback]

 

Our excuse is bad ownership.

 

Your excuse for false name calling is something I would prefer not to know, but i'm sure it has to do with the co-runner of your inactive site.

866185[/snapback]

Oh get off it would you?

 

Very nice taking a cheap shop at someone's hobby, and a nice little growing web project that is averaging about 1,000 hits in just 3 months, and with little advertising. We have 3 interviews locked up with Tiger prospects, weve done 1 already, and have been mentioned on countless blogs and three other major baseball sites, but seriously get off it.

 

And your paranoia that this is part of some big bad plan by me to wrong you or belittle you but its not. Mark, along with others form their own opinions on things and smiply cant stand that 1 out every 3 posts you have on here slam a team, player, or another user on this site.

 

Grow up Craig and stop going on your little rants everytime one of your beloved teams does well in a sport.

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Yeah but for every ball gobbled up in the OF? that the Nationals have hit the opposing team has about 5 of the same. Theve been lucky all year and when the luck is starting to swing the other way they divert their losings by blaming their field and Contractors. Come on just accept the fact that you have overachieved all year

865424[/snapback]

Maybe. But those two natural centerfielders in Church and Wilkerson and mobile strong armed rightfielder (Guillen) have needed any luck.

 

 

It's the air currents at RFK. There's a force field about 10-20 feet from the wall.

866246[/snapback]

Or maybe it's just that DC air. :p

866320[/snapback]

We've got hot air blowing when it's 16 below freezing.

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From Tom Boswell's email column:

 

Out Riding Fences at RFK

Thomas Boswell

 

As you read this e-mail, Barry Svrluga and I may be under arrest. Or, if we're smart, we may have chickened out. Or, if everything goes perfectly, we made have succeeded in sneaking into RFK Stadium very early on Wednesday with a 300-foot tape measure to answer the biggest question of the Washington Nationals' first season in RFK Stadium.

 

How far is it really to those 380-foot signs in the power alleys anyway? Oh, you thought the big question was whether the Nats could gather themselves from their recent stumbles and still make the playoffs. That's an interesting question. But it doesn't get discussed nearly as much by the Nationals themselves as the mystery of the actual distances to the RFK fences, a subject that obsesses every hitter on the team and many of the pitchers, too.

 

Nosy reporters are notoriously unsuccessful in getting access to major league fields for the purpose of measuring the distance to controversial fences. And when they do claim to have pulled off the trick, not all fans and players take their "evidence" as conclusive. Scribes have tried to take the measure of suspect stadiums from the Polo Grounds to Fenway Park for generations.

 

Most often, even when you arrive many hours before a game, security personnel spoil the innocent fun. Of course, RFK "security" didn't help Marlon Byrd's car. But that was in a parking lot. And the subsequent crackdown may foil Barry and me.

 

If the worst befalls us, I prefer that my cakes have chocolate frosting (with a file inside) if we end up in the D.C. jail.

 

Of course, we assume that Jose Guillen (18 homers on the road this season, one at RFK) will bail us out, if necessary.

 

Sooner or later, and we'd certainly prefer sooner, Barry and I hope to have learned, at least to our own satisfaction, whether RFK's listed distances of 335 feet down the foul lines, 380 to the alleys and 410 to center are accurate or, as almost everybody who has played in RFK believes, understated significantly -- perhaps by as must as 15 feet between the 380 signs where homers go to die.

 

"There's no way it's only 380 feet," said Vinnie Castilla who has hit 309 homers, but only six this year compared to 35 last year in Colorado's home run heaven. Castilla has seen two of his best blasts -- "way out of any other park" -- hit near the very top of the diabolical 380 sign, as though it was taunting him. "If this was any normal ballpark, I'd have about 16 homers so far."

 

"I'd probably have 15," said Brad Wilkerson to Castilla. Last year, Wilkerson had 32 homers but this season, like Castilla, he's got only six -- on pace for a paltry 11 homers.

 

"I know my own power and I know that sign is wrong -- by a lot," said Guillen. "I should have 26 homers."

 

"You see all those notches he's carved above his locker?" says catcher Brian Schneider, grabbing Guillen playfully. "He's keeping track of 'em. He's gonna tear out that chunk (of wall) and take it to arbitration. Think Jim (Bowden) will count those?"

 

"Don't worry," says Wilkerson. "The ball will carry further when it gets hot."

 

All the hitters laugh or snort disgustedly at this bromide repeated by manager Frank Robinson who, in his playing days, thought that RFK -- with almost exactly the same fence distances -- was a neutral or normal park for homers.

 

"It's been hot as hell for the last three series here. You don't see any more balls going out, do you?" says one Nats hitter. "If it was just me, I wish we could have stayed on the road for another week." So, how far do players really guess that the infamous power alley fences are? "Put me down for 391 feet," said Wilkerson.

 

"I'll go with 389," said catcher Gary Bennett.

 

Why such a fuss about 10 feet or so? Even the highest guessers don't go over 395 feet, and perhaps 420 in center field.

 

It's vitally important because times, and hitting styles, have changed dramatically over the past 30 years and the distances to the power alleys are now a crucial factor in the sport. By accident, RFK is perfectly constructed to flummox modern power hitters.

 

In the old RFK days, almost all sluggers were pull hitters who tried to jerk the ball over the ball over the fences at their shortest point near the foul lines, a style created by Babe Ruth with Yankee Stadium's famous "short porch" in right field. In fact, for dead pull hitters, RFK is still a normal park. Any ball hit within 15 yards of the foul poles is said to "carry well."

 

However, after baseball left RFK -- where Frank Howard, by my memory at least, only hit one of two opposite field homers in his career -- a new theory of hitting arrived. Led by coach Charlie Lau, then Walt Hriniak and many others, most hitters, even those with huge physiques like Frank Thomas, were taught to hit the ball "from alley to alley." That way they could "use the whole field" and hit for a high batting average while seldom wasting those potential home runs on long fly balls that hooked foul down the lines.

 

As new retro-style ballparks were built, most were like Baltimore's Camden Yards -- friendly in one or both alleys. Many current parks have signs with numbers in the 360s and 370s on their power alley fences as well as cozy Ebbetts Field-like walls in one corner or the other. But some don't even trust those smallish numbers. In Philadelphia there are claims, by players and media types, that the left field fence at the "364" foot sign has surreptitiously measured at only -- gasp -- 342 feet.

 

How much difference does all this make? Use your imagination. A normal seating row at a ballpark is three feet deep. If you see a home run go five rows into the stands that means it cleared the fence by about 15 feet. As an extreme example, if left field in RFK is really 390 feet away and the comparable spot in Philadelphia is only 342 feet, then a homer that lands 15 rows into the bleachers in Philly, giving the appearance of being a very long home run, would be an out in RFK -- without the outfielder even leaning against the wall. Even if Philly is really 364 and RFK 390, then any homer in the first eight rows in Philly is an RFK out.

 

That's both an undeniable physical difference, but also an enormous psychological factor boosting the confidence of pitchers and demoralizing hitters as soon as they take BP and see some of their best bolts die on the warning track.

 

"You can hit it out of this park, but you have to crush it," said Schneider, who has four homers in RFK and only two on the road. "There are no cheap homers here."

 

"At least this park is going to make me $600," said Wilkerson. "I've bet six players $100 each that there won't be six opposite field home runs all season. So far, there's been one -- (46-year-old) Julio Franco."

 

Whatever the actual fence distances in RFK, the impact on many Nationals has been enormous. The Nats have allowed the fifth fewest runs in baseball. Is their pitching and defense really that good? Only partially. The home vs. road ERAs of the Nats rotation (as of Monday) explains a lot of that excellence. John Patterson, 2.20 vs. 4.19. Esteban Loaiza, 2.36 vs., 4.94. Tony Armas, 2.78 vs. 7.81. Ryan Drese, 1.13 vs. 4.15. Livan Hernandez, 3.32 vs. 3.49.

 

In RFK, as a group, they're superstars with Pedro Martinez-type stats. Out of RFK, they're solid but basically average.

 

Meanwhile, in perhaps the most significant statistical oddity of the Nats' season, Washington's hitters haven't been hurt nearly as much as Nat pitchers have been helped. The net effect of RFK, with the current roster, is an enormous positive. Part of the team's 30-14 home record is fan support. But a lot is due to the dimensions and playing characteristics of RFK.

 

True, Guillen slugs .653 on the road and .355 at home and Wilkerson has taken a hit, batting .342 on the road and .218 at home. But no other Nat player fits this dramatic profile. Castilla, despite what he thinks, has five of his six homers at RFK and slugs 171 points higher at home. As group, Jose Vidro, Nick Johnson and Ryan Church have hit roughly as well at home as away. The team's lesser bats don't have much impact and Cristian Guzman couldn't hit in zero gravity on the moon.

 

Whatever the true RFK distances turn out to be, here's what the Nats need to know: It's probably helping them -- maybe a lot.

 

"I think the signs are accurate," says GM Jim Bowden. "But whatever they are, if I have a say in it, they'll be the same next year."

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