Veteran Nats fans enjoying rare winning season


Washington Nationals fan Howard Allen, 92, before the game against the New York Yankees at Nationals Park on Sunday. (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 17, 2012

The veteran fans found their seats in Section 130 of Nationals Park and surveyed the surroundings.

“Pretty nice,” said Howard Allen. “It’s quite a bit different than what we used to have. Griffith Stadium was a rickety old thing.”

When Allen talks, he speaks from experience, something he has plenty of. Allen is 91 years old and has seen three incarnations of major league baseball teams in Washington. He was 4 when the Senators and Walter Johnson won the 1924 World Series. But since then, as far as baseball's concerned, he’s endured mostly suffering.

“I’m the oldest baseball fan in the country who’s never seen his team win anything,” he said.

Seated next to Allen at Sunday’s series finale between the Nationals and the New York Yankees was Ralph Harry, an 82-year-old spring chicken. The two grew up on the Senators and have followed baseball in the District since World War II. For fans like Allen and Harry, long-suffering but eternally hopeful, the 2012 baseball season is unlike anything they’ve seen in a long, long time.

“I’m just not used to it,” Allen said of the winning.

A city that can’t seem to agree on much has found a common rooting interest this spring. With sellout crowds for all three games against the Yankees, the Nationals are averaging 29,598 fans per home game, an increase of nearly 8,300 from this same point a year ago. Five of the team’s 10 best-attended games in Nationals Park history have come this year — and the season isn’t even half-finished. 

“I think this is the standard and the norm for the summer,” said Andrew Feffer, the Nationals’ chief operating officer, “because there’s something special going on. There’s an incredible story happening right in front of us right now.”

As the excitement over a first-place baseball team gripped many in the city during the highly anticipated three-game showdown with the Yankees, Allen and Harry were simply adding new stories to a memory bank already chock-full. 

Allen recalls seeing Babe Ruth stroll to the plate at Griffith Stadium. Harry remembers taking the train car to the stadium and plopping down just a couple of bucks for a game ticket. 

When he was in the Navy in 1950, Harry was stationed in Annapolis and spent several days deriding his Yankee-fan boss, calling Joe DiMaggio a bum. The two drove to a Yankees-Senators game together and saw DiMaggio slam three home runs in one game.

“That was a long ride home,” Harry said.

Both Allen and Harry attended the final Senators game at RFK Stadium in 1971, in which Washington held a 7-5 lead over the Yankees in the ninth inning but had to forfeit after fans stormed the field. “It was a mob,” Allen said.

“And then they were gone,” Harry said of the Senators. “We didn’t think it would take so long to get a team back. That turned out to be the hardest part.” From 1972 until the Montreal Expos relocated to the District in 2005, baseball wasn’t the same. “I could never give my loyalty to another team,” Harry said. 

Even losing baseball was better than no baseball. This year marks the 79th year of major league baseball in Washington. In that time, area fans have been treated to just 18 seasons of above-.500 ball but only once in the past half-century. This year’s Nats stand at 38-26 following the disappointing sweep by the Yankees, still four games ahead of the second-place Atlanta Braves.

It takes true veteran fans to recall the days when winning baseball was an annual tradition in the District, when Arch McDonald used to broadcast the games on WTOP. The old-timers even remember a teenage phenom who predated Bryce Harper by nearly 80 years.

Like Harper, the Nats’ colorful, youthful outfielder, Cecil Travis was a 19-year-old left-handed batter who raised eyebrows across baseball. He had five hits in his 1933 major league debut and played with the Senators until 1947, appearing in three all-star games.

“That Cecil Travis was always one of my favorites,” Allen said. “I remember 1941, when Ted Williams batted .400-something. That year, Travis hit .350-something and was second by 50 points. I remember it all.”

Watching the Nats drop Sunday’s game to the visiting Yankees didn’t do much to dampen spirits in Section 130. The Nats are still in first place, still winning games. Harry says he’s watched every game on television this season. He has a printout of the schedule on the coffee table at his Arlington home, and he marks off each win.

“I had six circles in a row until the Yankees came,” he noted.

After a lifetime of watching losing baseball, Harry senses something different about these Nats, though he’s careful about any bold pronouncements.

“We may make it into the playoffs this year, but I’ll hold off a little before I say that,” he said, cracking a smile. “If I live until 2015 or 2016, I think I might just be watching a World Series. Finally.”

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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