- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The rain has ended, but the flood of harsh words from the Washington Nationals, Potomac Nationals owner Art Silber and Prince William County hasn’t stopped.

A ferocious storm tore through Northern Virginia last week. The hourlong deluge left creeks of muddy water flowing along roads, snarled traffic and soaked the field at G. Richard Pfitzner Stadium in Woodbridge, home to the Potomac Nationals, Washington’s high Class A affiliate.

When the next day’s doubleheader was postponed - on a pleasant evening more than 24 hours after the rain had stopped - Washington general manager Mike Rizzo issued a statement calling the field a “safety threat” and “even more dangerous” because of “unsupervised work.”

“He clearly doesn’t know what he was talking about,” Mr. Silber said. “He has no idea what has happened at our ballpark and really shouldn’t be commenting on it.

“The field is fine. We’re not sure why Mr. Rizzo made the comments he did, which were, really, very unfortunate. They certainly did not reflect the reality for us.”

Five Nationals executives were in attendance July 14, Mr. Rizzo said, including assistant general manager Brian Minniti, farm director Doug Harris and vice president of player personnel Bob Boone. All agreed with Potomac manager Matt LeCroy, two officials from the visiting Kinston Indians and two umpires that the field was unplayable.

“We called Major League Baseball and the national association, and they felt it was unsafe to take the field,” said Mr. Rizzo, who stood by his statement after being told in Houston of Mr. Silber’s comments, “so that’s why we postponed the game.”

Mr. Silber maintained that the Washington officials on hand were acting at the behest of someone off-site and, in his view, everyone but Washington believed the field was playable.

If the field were deemed safe and Potomac refused to play, it would have forfeited the game. Instead, the doubleheader was postponed.

Mr. Rizzo’s statement incensed Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. The county owns the stadium and is working with Mr. Silber on plans for a new facility.

“Rizzo ought to focus on doing his job, which could probably use some improvement,” Mr. Stewart said, voice shaking. “He’s talking out of his rear end. … He doesn’t know what’s happening because he didn’t bother to check.

“Frankly, he’s not a good manager. He’s received a lot of criticism for his performance for the job he should be doing. He should stick to the job he’s supposed to do instead of getting involved in something he doesn’t know about.”

Apprised of Mr. Stewart’s reaction, Mr. Rizzo responded in a statement to The Washington Times: “I don’t really understand Mr. Stewart’s comments. My concerns with playing conditions at Prince William County’s Pfitzner Stadium have related specifically to protecting our players and those of our opponents. I can’t imagine he doesn’t place the same value on player safety that I do, Major League Baseball does, the Carolina League does, and the Washington Nationals do.”

Mr. Silber, 71, a retired bank executive, bought the Potomac team in 1990 and has been in constant discussions about building a new stadium since. He occasionally coaches first base during games, and the team’s website touts him as the “Oldest First Base Coach in Minor League Baseball.”

The stadium, built in 1984, is maintained by the Prince William County Parks Authority. Eleven of Potomac’s dates have been postponed, canceled or moved this season. No other Carolina League team has had more than four such incidents. The Frederick Keys, for instance, have postponed three games, including one moved from Potomac.

The park authority’s executive director, Jay Ellington, didn’t agree with Mr. Rizzo’s assessment of the field conditions as “dangerous” but conceded it needs work.

“They better be careful what they say about Prince William County,” Mr. Stewart said. “It only takes one statement to [anger] the residents of Prince William County and this government and really hurt their ticket sales.”

The current issue, Mr. Ellington said, is the recent replacement of outfield sod. Because of a lack of the suppliers, the quality of the sod was not ideal. Troubles also arose after two underground drainage systems were finished this spring and the lines did not properly grass over.

In April, Potomac’s three-game series with the Keys was shifted to Frederick because of the problem with the drainage lines. Mr. Silber said the games were moved at his suggestion. A Washington source refuted that claim, saying the organization was the one to deem the field unplayable for the series.

Bryce Harper, Washington’s top prospect, was promoted this month from low Class A Hagerstown to Double-A Harrisburg. Mr. Rizzo has maintained that concerns about Potomac’s field played no role in his decision to have Harper skip high Class-A. Several highly regarded Nationals prospects, including pitcher Sammy Solis and outfielder Destin Hood, are at Potomac.

“We realize this field has not been graded the best in the league and is probably on the bottom of the list for a number of years,” Mr. Ellington of the parks authority said. “It needs some renovations. It does not meet a couple of the standards.”

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the drainage elevation from second base into the outfield is out of line. Fixing that requires removing all outfield sod, significant amounts of soil and disconnecting the drainage and irrigation systems. Mr. Ellington is searching for a way to fund the project.

“Minor League Baseball representatives have been working closely with Potomac Nationals officials on ballpark issues since last fall,” a statement from Minor League Baseball to The Times said. “These types of issues are not uncommon with older facilities like Pfitzner Stadium.”

The Carolina League did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Potomac’s lease with the county runs through Dec. 31, 2015, but Mr. Silber is eyeing a new ballpark. Though plans have floated for years - such as the $10.7 million proposal for a stadium in the county’s 2004 capital improvement program - Mr. Silber said he will announce a privately funded stadium in the next 30 days.

Mr. Stewart confirmed the plan for a 7,000-seat facility near Interstate 95 in Prince William County. Pfitzner Stadium holds 6,000. Mr. Silber estimates the stadium will cost $25 million. Neither would divulge the location. The county may be involved in the construction of dual-use parking garages for the stadium and commuters and providing public land, but it won’t finance the stadium.

Mr. Stewart and Mr. Silber said they hope the stadium will be ready in 2013 or 2014, barring environmental problems with the site. But hard feelings in Prince William County over last week’s events and its field being labeled “dangerous” haven’t eased.

“They were really ignorant,” said Mr. Stewart, who went on to call for Mr. Rizzo’s ouster as general manager. “I’m extremely - and I have to emphasize that - extremely unhappy and angered.”

Said Mr. Silber: “In any long-term marriage, you’re going to have disagreements and arguments. But our commitment to the [Washington] Nationals and them to us is certainly on a long-term basis. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to reserve the right to disagree with each other and sometimes have some pretty sharp differences.”

• Amanda Comak contributed to this report.

• Nathan Fenno can be reached at nfenno@washingtontimes.com.

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