Requiem for a team: P-Nats say goodbye to Woodbrige, Pfitzner Stadium

September 3, 2019

WTOP/Noah Frank

Last Thursday, the unassuming white sign on the northwest corner of Prince William Parkway and Greatbridge Road announced GAME TONIGHT for the final time. Inside the aging, outdated Pfiztner Stadium in Woodbridge, Virginia — known affectionately as The Pfitz — the Potomac Nationals played under that name for the final time, taking on the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in front of 4,682 fans there to say goodbye.

Next season, the P-Nats will move to a shiny, brand new ballpark to the south in Fredericksburg. They’ll still be affiliated with the Washington Nationals and may still share the parent club’s name (that’s still to be determined this offseason). But they’ll leave Prince William County, 35 years of history, and a small-but-devoted fan base behind.

Potomac Nationals GM Bryan Holland in his office before the final home game at Pfitzner Stadium. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

***

The minor league season is an incessant churn, with short, overworked staffs, 13-hour days, and homestands that often stretch longer than a week all before you get to rainouts, extra innings, and any number of daily fires, real or metaphorical, that require immediate attention. But once it’s over and the seasons cool, baseball’s absence — the absence of the churn — makes the heart grow fonder and the head at best forgetful, at worst longing, missing the grind that Opening Day will bring once again.

That grind keeps you focused on only the task in front of you each day, which is why it’s believable that Potomac Nationals GM Bryan Holland really hadn’t given much thought to Thursday’s finale at The Pfitz until it was upon him.

“I think it’s finally washed over me and our staff that there’s finality to it,” he said in his office after gates had opened for the final time, inside of an hour until first pitch. “I think the walk to the parking lot tonight will be different than it has.”

Holland started as the team’s media relations director and play-by-play man. He’s been at The Pfitz for eight seasons, 70-plus games a year. Few people have seen as many games there as he has.

“I don’t like saying goodbye, I have problems with that myself,” said Holland. “I say, ‘see you later.’”

That may work well enough for Holland and the rest of his full-time staff — all nine of them — who are making the move with the team down I-95 to Fredericksburg. They’ll be set up in a new downtown space this fall, which will become a merchandise and ticket hub. Theoretically, they’ll open play on April 23 of next year at the New Fredericksburg Ballpark at the Celebrate Virginia South development.

But that doesn’t mean Holland isn’t sensitive to the plight of the fans they’re leaving behind.

“It’s unavoidable. If you lost your hometown team, you’d feel the same,” said Holland. “I share with them in the disappointment. I wish we could have gotten an agreement done here locally, but it proved, for a litany of reasons, some in and out of our control, that it just wasn’t the case. We weren’t able to make the numbers work and politically it wasn’t in the cards.”

The P-Nats explored different sites both inside and outside Prince William County for years before finally landing on Fredericksburg. The Pfitz opened its doors in 1984, just eight years before Camden Yards, but feels of an entirely different generation than the Orioles’ home. It survived a fire caused by a gas leak, which destroyed the front office tucked into the bowl back in the middle of the 2012 season. No humans were hurt in the incident, though mascot Uncle Slam wasn’t seen again until the following year. Even before the fire, it was due for an upgrade, in Woodbridge or elsewhere.

The sun sets behind left field at Pfitzner Stadium. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

***

First pitch comes a minute early at 7:04 p.m., an occurrence as rare as the unseasonably dry, exquisite 79-degree evening, with not a single cloud dotting the Northern Virginia sky.

For Sue and Steve Jones of nearby Lake Ridge, the finale is an emotional affair. They’ve been 35-game season ticket holders since 1991 back when the team was the Prince William Cannons. They’ve watched the team for its entire run at The Pfitz, as a Yankees, then White Sox, then Cardinals, then Reds, and finally Nationals affiliate. As players and big league affiliates and front offices have come and gone, they’ve been here every spring and summer as booster club members, sponsoring cookies for players on their birthdays, or breakfast before the long bus rides that knit the fabric of seasons in the Carolina League, which stretches from South Carolina to the tip of Delaware.

They were here for Stephen Strasburg’s post-Tommy John surgery rehab, as much of a zoo as The Pfitz has ever been, with ESPN cameras on site, cutting into “Sportscenter” with updates. They were here when Vice President Al Gore attended a game in the ‘90s. Steve bought him a beer and had it sent over, only to find himself suddenly being interrogated by Secret Service. They keep score at every game and hold onto the scoresheets, a stack of them lining a box in a closet at home, the kind of keepsake that means nothing to almost everyone, but everything to someone.

Like keeping score by hand, with pencil and paper, baseball generally is often seen as a sport clinging to tradition and notoriously change-averse, yet things are changing in the sport all the time, especially at the minor league level. Teams rebrand and switch affiliates. Players come and go daily. Those who remain longer than a year or two at any given stop are the anomaly.

So it’s fitting that the player that jumped to mind first for the Joneses when thinking back over the years was Ian Desmond. One of the last holdovers from the Nationals’ Montreal days, Desmond played 276 games over three seasons with the P-Nats between 2005-07 before embarking on a big league career that has endured more than a decade.

“You really get to know these guys. You get to watch them progress through their career,” said Steve Jones. “Those kind of things are lasting memories that you’ll never forget.”

As they watched the final innings from their customary seats just off the field level down the third base line, the raw anger and sadness of the Joneses’ impending loss overtook the wistful nostalgia.

“I’ve teared up a couple times,” said Sue Jones. “I’m gonna miss them. Trip Kiester, the manager, has been here, what, five years? We’re friends with him. It’s awful, actually. It’s awful.”

Her husband expressed frustration at the inability of the county supervisors to get a deal done to keep the team.

“People that hold political office, they’re in for as long as they’re in, and then they’re gone,” he said. “Once professional baseball leaves, it will be a very long time, if ever, that you’ll ever see it again.”

There were plenty of deals on the items that remained at The Pfitz. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

***

Steve Dameron of Springfield, Va. is a much more casual fan who mostly just comes out to games on Saturday nights, but his ties to the P-Nats still run deep. He started attending Potomac Cannons games in 2000 with his then-toddler daughter after moving back to the states from Germany. She grew up a fan of the team, and Dameron still attends several games each year, often with his friend Mike Finnerty, who he was with Thursday (and who remembers the $1 tickets in the ‘80s, back when the club was a Pirates affiliate), sitting in the top row of the main grandstand that wraps behind home plate. The two of them had decided just earlier in the week to make it out to the finale.

“I saw it on the radar and found out I didn’t have to go to work on Friday, so I was able to take tomorrow off and get down here for tonight’s game,” said Dameron.

Sporting an Albuquerque Isotopes shirt, he’s a baseball fan in general, but appreciates both the feel and the affordability of the minor leagues.

“It just feels more interactive, you can see what’s going on, hear what’s going on,” he said. “Expense-wise, you can’t beat it. You bring a family down for under 50 bucks and have a good time, and that barely gets you a ticket at Major League games.”

But with the team’s move further away down I-95, attending regularly just won’t be feasible. Fredericksburg is less than 35 miles south of Woodbridge and just over 40 miles from Springfield, but as anyone who has traveled the I-95 corridor knows, that distance can be a terror to drive at rush hour. The next day, even before 3 p.m., the estimated time from The Pfitz to the team’s future home was pushing two hours.

“Sad to see them go,” said Dameron. “Fighting 95 to go to a game is going to be a bear. We’ll probably go down to one or two a year, but not much more than that.”

Players sign final autographs for fans after the game. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

***

There is, awkwardly, a very good chance that Thursday wasn’t the last game the P-Nats will play in Woodbridge. The club held a groundbreaking ceremony in Fredericksburg in late February, but site work did not begin until mid-summer, putting the April 2020 opening of the 5,000-seat facility very much in question. For comparison, the Nationals’ 6,500-seat spring training complex in West Palm Beach broke ground in Nov. 2015 and required heavy overtime work to be ready 15 months later in Feb. 2017, while still requiring work to be completed after opening.

If the Fredericksburg stadium isn’t ready in time, the club still holds a lease option at The Pfitz for 2020, and could well open the season there until their new home is finished. Making things even weirder, the team is currently contemplating a name change and rebrand, meaning there’s a chance that a team with a new, Fredericksburg identity and different name could find itself back at The Pfitz on Opening Day, 2020.

“We’re also fully aware of the contingency with the new stadium, that we do have a lease extension option,” said Holland.

The only requirement under the deal with the city is that the new facility be ready for use April 1, 2021.

But none of that uncertainty makes Thursday night’s goodbye feel like any less of a finality. There are deals everywhere, as the club clears out the last of its inventory. Food specials abound, for what items remain, but the biggest values are in the team store. Official fitted hats, normally retailing for $34.99, are being sold for $20, buy-one-get-two-free. Even that isn’t the pinnacle of value, though.

In the eighth inning, an adolescent boy climbs into the stands to announce that everything in the store is now on sale for $5.

While the team may open 2020 back in Woodbridge, Thursday’s game was treated like the final game in the ballpark’s history. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

***

In the middle of the fifth inning, the staff takes to the field behind home plate to thank the fans. It’s a quick, low key affair, spare on pomp and circumstance.

Those attending will more likely remember the bottom half of the inning. At one point, a towering foul ball bounces off the top of an unsuspecting fan’s head, knocking his hat off. Once the crowd sees he’s no worse for wear, he gets a rousing round of applause. Two pitches later, Austin Davidson fouls another one high over the screen near the same fan, and the crowd erupts with laughter.

Later in the frame, the P-Nats finally get on the board, tying the game at a run apiece. Then, with two on and two out, P-Nats first baseman Aldrem Corredor belts a booming, three-run shot to give the home side the lead for good. It won’t be the field-storming, walk-off victory Sue Jones had wished for, but it will be a win, one that keeps the faint flicker of postseason hopes alive for another couple days, before they are extinguished on the road over the weekend, eliminating any chance of another home game this season.

The game ends and fans file out, the P-Nats staff exchanging hugs on the field as players sign final autographs and take photos with the die-hards camped out behind the home dugout. Holland stands out on the warning track along the third base side looking up, more out of practicality than sentimentality.

“I’m just making sure nobody takes anything,” he said.

The abnormally mild temperature at first pitch has led to a cooler than usual night come the final out, lending a distinct autumn-like atmosphere as the last fans trickle out of the Prince William County Stadium Complex one final time, leaving them to face the fall alone.

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