May 6, 2011

Four score and seven years ago, Washington won the World Series. Yes, that really happened, in a long-gone place called Griffith Stadium, where the air was perfumed with cigar smoke and the good smells emanating from a bakery up near where Florida and Georgia avenues meet. It happened in 1924, when Calvin Coolidge was president and Babe Ruth played for the Yankees. Perhaps it will never happen again. We can live with that in Washington. In some places, they can’t.

This week Washington ended another heartbreaking flirtation with greatness as our highly regarded hockey team was defeated in the playoffs once more — four straight games and out in the second round. One sports commentator, trying to put her finger on the Washington Capitals’ perennial postseason failures, alluded to something perhaps missing in the locker room: an elan, a spark. Or perhaps what was lacking was the sense of sheer desperation that might cause members of a team to think, as one, that they will be forever disgraced and reviled if they lose this game.

In Philadelphia, they might be, or in New York, Chicago or Detroit. But Washington is a comparatively forgiving place, at least in sports, and perhaps in part because there is so little forgiveness elsewhere in the city. Followers of the Caps are loyal and loud, but we don’t boo our own. That might not be fair. Just last spring a baseball pitcher named Jason Marquis — recently acquired by the Nationals at considerable expense — gave up seven runs in the first inning to the Milwaukee Brewers and was booed with very un-Washington vigor by many, including me. Shame on all of us: It turned out Marquis was pitching with an unknown injury, and after surgery he has returned to perform quite well. We must remember to be more judicious in our condemnation. Wait until all the facts are in.

Anyway, for many years, Washington could be quite happy with mediocrity. Baseball was made up of two leagues of eight clubs each, and at the end of a 154-game season, the first-place teams in the American and National leagues met in the World Series, which was usually over by around Oct. 10. But for most fans, winning the pennant wasn’t everything; the order of finish meant a lot. If the Senators finished fifth, that was pretty good, offering hope for a coveted place in the “first division” (that is, one of the league’s top four teams) in the season to come. (Sixth place, not so good; seventh, pretty poor; eighth, bums.)

Indeed, while baseball was a popular game, it was full of low expectations all around. There were no millionaire ballplayers, not by a long shot; a slugger for the Senators in the 1950s was stocking shelves in a grocery store in the off-season. The game’s owners, a parsimonious lot to whom players were practically indentured for life, could squeeze a nickel till it sang Verdi arias. Then, in the 1950s, they discovered a much more promising financial strategy: Pack up the team and move to another city, as two of Washington’s owners did in succession.

After 1933, when the Senators went to their one other World Series (and lost), fans who wanted to see a good team could wait for the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues to visit Griffith Stadium, which they did often in the late 1930s. In fact, they were about the only non-white athletes to be seen there, which may have something to do with our city’s long skein of mediocrity. Washington wasn’t alone in maintaining the color bar, of course, but Redskins owner George Preston Marshall held out stubbornly against ending it, and he made his team the last in the National Football League to hire an African American player. (His name was Bobby Mitchell, and he’s in the Hall of Fame.) Meanwhile, Redskins fans continued to turn out, cheering a middling team through good times and bad, mostly bad. So we lost — that’s part of life, isn’t it?

Sometimes at Nats games I look at the huge contingents of Philadelphia fans — full of pride, scorn, bile and alcohol — and wonder at their intense devotion. Many of them come down here for games because they can’t get into their own stadium, which is always sold out. The Phillies are very good these days, maybe in part because they fear to fail before such people. Perhaps, I think, we should be more like that, but of course I know we never will be. A friend who ventured up to Philadelphia for an Eagles game reported that the fans give the home team one series of downs; then they start booing.

We’re more patient here, and sometimes it pays off. Joe Gibbs lost his first five games as the Redskins’ coach, but look at what he went on to do. And occasionally a truly superb, world-class figure turns up here: Walter Johnson, Sammy Baugh, Wes Unseld, Alex Ovechkin. Just be patient.

In the 1924 World Series, the Senators were on the verge of losing in the seventh and final game when a routine ground ball down the third-base line hit a pebble and bounced over the head of a New York Giants infielder, allowing two runs to score and tie the game. Then, in the 12th inning, another grounder took an unexpected hop past the third baseman, and the Senators scored the winning run.

So, keep the faith, Washington fans. Enjoy the game from the bleacher-seat of government. Analyze, appreciate, cheer when appropriate and boo when it’s merited. Life will go on, whatever happens. If they don’t win it’s a shame — not a tragedy. And keep in mind that just when things look darkest, somewhere out there, perhaps along the third-base line, another pebble or two could be lying in wait.

Kenneth Ikenberry is a former Post writer and editor. His e-mail address is kennethikenberry@aol.com.

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