All summer I’ve felt like a clearing station for the baseball wounded of the last 40 years. Day after day, by every known means of communication, they report themselves healed, whole and jubilant, cured of an ache they thought was permanent but has now been entirely cured and replaced by euphoria.
Familiar phrases repeat, like any good Greek chorus, confirming the general theme of the entertainment. “I can’t believe it,” they say, which by reverse-jinx psychology is as close as they can come to screaming, “By damn, I really do believe it.”
Along the same lines, “too good to be true” is a popular, along with “real baseball at last,” “up past midnight to watch,” “it’s been so long” and “I just love this team.” And then there’s a personal favorite: “We may delay honeymoon until after Nats are out of playoffs.”
There is, however, another entire strain of happiness that has caught me by surprise. There is a middle generation that never saw either version of the old Senators but is overjoyed to share this new winning Washington Nationals experience with both their parents and their own kids. It’s as though the 25-to-50 bunch sees itself as a natural link between those who lost the team(s) of their youth and their own kids who now have a home team worth loving to bond with from the beginning.
Finally, there is an unexpected refrain that greets me daily by e-mail: “I’m originally from X, so my favorite team has always been Y. But we’ve lived here for Z years, and we’ve fallen for the Nats. If Y ever meets the Nats in the Series, it’ll be a tough choice.”
But there is indisputably a significant portion of Nats fans who are men and women of “a certain age” who feel a direct connection with the last Senators team, either first-hand or through their parents. And for these people, like me, the mixture of emotions is powerful and literally spans a lifetime.
I started fetching coffee in The WashingtonPost’s sports department in 1969 at age 21. Next month, I’ll turn 65, supposedly some symbol of approaching old age. So, yes, this baseball in D.C. thing really has absorbed my adult lifetime.
In those first two years at The Post, I got a bug’s-eye view of a town losing a local institution, born in 1901, that every single person in the city thought would never leave to stay. My vantage point was up close and far too personal. I sat within 20 feet of lifelong baseball writers Shirley Povich, Bob Addie and George Minot and watched them, day after day, report out a story so crass and destructive that even they, with more than 100 years in the business among them, could hardly believe that “it” was happening again.
Washington was going to be blamed for losing a franchise due to non-support when the real driving reasons — not 100 percent, but much more than half — had nothing to do with Washington at all.
The Senators left after the 1960 season because owner Calvin Griffith saw a chance to make a lot of money in Minneapolis after his family had merely made enough money in Washington for two generations. Also, Griffith was a racist and wanted to get away from “them.” At least that’s the reason he gave me on a bus ride to the World Series years later when he didn’t know I was a baseball reporter. By then he was just a shrunken, evil old coot. All I had to do was say “Washington,” and he let the racial hostility gush out.
The expansion Senators left after ’71 because owner Bob Short was an adventurer and financial fool. A Povich scoop revealed that Short had acquired the team for only a few thousand dollars of his own money with all the rest borrowed, kited, flim-flammed or, perhaps, nonexistent. The second Senators left for Texas to keep Short’s head above water.
A contributing factor, of course, was that poor to awful teams from 1934 to ’71, with the occasional glimpse of .500., will neuter any fan base. However, the truth — and nobody will ever move me off it because I lived it — is that Washington gave the nickel-and-dime Senators product more attendance and enthusiasm than it deserved.
There has always been a core of people, led by Povich for more than 25 years, who harangued every dim-bulb commissioner and reported on every MLB owners meeting when “D.C.” was on the docket. At 90, Shirley was still bludgeoning Bud Selig for “mistaking the Nation’s Capital for Chattanooga.”
Though roughly five teams were definitely, absolutely and unequivocally switching cities to come to D.C., none of them ever actually did. I wrote the one-paragraph player bios of the San Diego Padres, including Dave Winfield, who would for certain be the Washington Senators in ’73.
In the ’80s, I sat interviewing Jack Kent Cooke about his Redskins when he said, “My dear boy, are there any baseball teams for sale? We really ought to have one.” I told him the Pirates were the best bet at the moment. As God is my witness, JKC told his secretary to get the owner of the Pirates on the phone and, within minutes, while I sat there slack-jawed, Cooke tried to buy them. No sale.
When Edward Bennett Williams bought the Orioles, there was a winking grasp that he probably would move them to Washington. Never happened. Then the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards in ’92 and nightly crowds of 48,000 made the Orioles a gold mine that couldn’t be damaged by putting a team in Washington.
Until Peter Angelos ran the Birds into the ditch, Washington was blocked, no matter how big and rich it became. Luckily for D.C., Angelos succeeded in damaging his team so much that 29 other owners couldn’t have cared less what he wanted and saw the good sense of putting the Expos in D.C. Now, both Washington and Baltimore have teams in the playoffs, and the combined average crowds of the two clubs are 56,529. If you don’t think that number will hit 65,000 by 2013 or ’14, you’re out of your mind.
All summer, I have been happy. Friends sometimes think it is because the Nationals are winning more baseball games than any team in the sport. That’s not why.
I’ve been grateful and relieved that all the people who worked for more than 40 years to get baseball back to D.C, build a new park and put a first-rate team inside it have not turned out to be the victims of a lifelong practical joke. An idea, no matter how good it seems, can turn out to be dead wrong and damaging. Good intentions don’t save you.
This is the season when the Nats not only turned the corner but virtually ensured that the entire Southeast waterfront renewal project, including the District’s gamble in building a new park and giving it to the Nationals, will work out to the city’s benefit and the entire region’s pleasure.
Someday, someone will no doubt say that all this was obvious and inevitable. But in real time, it always felt like this day might not ever arrive. Was there a flaw nobody saw? Would the stadium be a financial disaster? Would the new owners be incompetent and field an infinite string of lousy teams?
The sports world will now start analyzing the playoffs, how far the Nationals will go, whether they have enough pitching without Stephen Strasburg or whether their inexperience will lead to a quick exit. That’s all good fun.
But in the long view, a lifetime’s view, the results are in, never to be changed: Washington and baseball won.
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