Nationals’ historic season rekindles memories of legendary Shirley Povich

Winning the division, clinching the best record in baseball — this has been a magical season for Washington Nationals fans. But as I watched Monday night’s celebration, my thoughts were of an old friend who should have been here to see it.

Shirley Povich, who was a columnist at this newspaper about 20 years longer than I’ve been alive, who campaigned relentlessly for a baseball team for his beloved Washington, would have been over the moon. You wouldn’t have known it. He’d have been all business and hit his deadline with a column of carefully crafted and tart prose. But inside, he’d have been turning cartwheels.

I’ve often thought during the Nationals’ eight seasons, “What would Shirley make of that?” He wouldn’t have understood the Racing Presidents. He would have been baffled by the crowd serenading Michael Morse with “Take On Me.” I doubt he would have used the word “Natitude” in speech or print.

But I’d love to know what he thought about Stephen Strasburg, from draft day to shutdown day. I’d love to see him at the batting cage, jawing with Davey Johnson, Mike Rizzo — and Rizzo’s dad. They’d have really hit it off. And I would love to know what he thought of Bryce Harper’s rookie season. People have compared Harper to Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, but those players were mere children to Shirley, and he would be able to make an accurate and well-reasoned assessment without having to go to the videotape to do it.

In the time I knew Shirley, he came in the office very seldom, but I always looked forward to his visits. He was a little frail by then, and he’d need to hang on to your shoulder to talk. He’d get me in a vise grip and start telling stories. And it was pure magic. When a man starts a sentence with, “I was with Walter Johnson, watching Babe Ruth take batting practice . . .” well, what is there to say? Just shut up and enjoy it.

I was a guest on one of The Post’s old television shows — it got great exposure when the Orioles were in a rain delay — and Shirley and Mark Maske were also on the panel. One of the topics was great home run hitters. Former Post sports editor George Solomon asked Shirley about the greatest home run hitters he’d ever seen. Shirley started with Ruth. Then George turned to me and said, “What about you, Tracee?” Thanks a lot, George. How in the world do you follow the guy who saw Ruth play?

Shirley was always happy to see baseball, but he could never quite embrace the Orioles. He believed, quite rightly, that the nation’s capital ought to have a team of his own. But he was there for Cal Ripken’s Iron Man games. Michael Wilbon saved him, in fact, by catching one-handed a foul ball headed straight for Shirley’s head. That has to be Wilbon’s greatest catch.

I was there the day he nearly died at Camden Yards. When word reached the press box, I ran down the stairs and knelt beside him on the floor as a paramedic worked on him. When he regained consciousness, she asked his name. “Shirley,” he said, weakly but clearly. She asked again and again he told her. She thought he was delirious and asked me, “Really, what’s his name?” I assured her he had all of his faculties and he was, in fact, Shirley — an original, a friend of Washington baseball, a dear man who somewhere, I trust, is root, root rooting for the home team.

For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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