September 1971 was a bad month in a bad year. Wars and rumors of wars all over the globe. Forty-three people dead in a New York prison riot . . . deadly cyclones in the Bay of Bengal . . . a tsunami in India . . .
And the ugly death of Washington baseball.
The Senators were a hopeless club saddled with a feckless owner. Up the road in Baltimore, the Orioles were posting a season worthy of the history books; the Washington sad sacks lagged nearly 40 games behind. As usual. Teaching your kids to love the Senators was like giving them a one-eyed cur with the mange.
Bob Short overborrowed to buy the franchise. He fielded a crummy team while charging the league's highest ticket prices, then billed his private jet to the club. When Short finally announced he was moving the team to some Nowhereville in Texas, it hurt -- but in the same way it hurts to pull an infected tooth. On September 30, 1971, 14,460 fans shuffled into Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium to bear witness to the end of the pastime in the nation's capital.
"The Star Spangled Banner never before sounded so much like a dirge," wrote sports columnist Shirley Povich. He had nearly 50 years on the beat by that point and could deliver such a line with authority.
The Senators' last game started out well enough. Hometown hero Frank Howard whacked a home run in the sixth inning as Washington drew even with those stardust-sprinkled, rosewater-smelling, money-and-fame dripping New York Damn Yankees. By the top of the ninth, the home team actually led, 7-5, and was just two outs away from dying with surprising dignity.
But the fans had a different mojo working that night. The city was tired of losing graciously -- losing games, losing seasons, losing franchises. Some of the fans had shown up with homemade banners they had draped from the upper deck, cursing Short in sharp four-letter verbiage. When the stadium cops tore those down, the fans unfurled new ones. Eventually, the crowd began chanting: "We want Bob Short! We want Bob Short!" Povich was reminded of "the baying-fury sound of a lynch mob."
The bile boiled over onto the field. Hundreds of people swarmed over the diamond and into the outfield, pulling up bases and stealing light bulbs from the scoreboards. The stadium announcer warned that the game would be forfeited if the melee continued . . . and no one seemed to care. So the teams left the dugouts and click-clacked away in their spikes toward the locker rooms, as the official scorer changed his book from 7-5 Senators to 9-0 Yankees -- the traditional forfeit score.
On that disgraceful note, baseball departed this town.
NOW YOU WALK TOWARD THAT SAME RFK STADIUM, nearly 34 years later, seeking signs and omens relating to baseball's impending return. You think of all the things that happened while the concept of "Washington baseball" was hanging upside down in the cryogenic tank of memory, waiting to be thawed out and cured of all infirmities. Watergate, the Fall of Saigon, disco, Jimmy Carter, "The Jeffersons," Ronald Reagan -- and that only skims the first half of the long caesura. A child born the day the Senators left town is eligible to run for president now, though some might ask why she would want to.
Plenty of stuff has happened in baseball, too. Good stuff, like the long, sturdy and exciting careers of Mike Schmidt, Rickey Henderson, Robin Yount and Cal Ripken Jr., and also a lot of pretty demoralizing stuff. We'll get to that soon enough.
With all due respect to U.S. soccer, RFK has been a bit underemployed in recent years, which casts a ghost-town quality over the place. But as you draw closer on a winter day, you can faintly hear workmen hammering and banging, and shouts impossible to make out, and the keening of power tools. Getting the park ready for baseball again has involved a fair amount of activity: moving seats to create an actual left field, adding more lights, putting up a backstop and generally spritzing a patina over the crud. You smell new paint and old must.
Like much that survives from the early 1960s, the stadium has a plonked-down-by-space-aliens feel, a meet-George-Jetson vibe. With its saucer shape and undulating roof, RFK is a relic of a future that is now long past, indeed, a future that never actually happened. The future did not turn out to be electro-dyno-lux. It turned out to be corporate suites for the swells and shorter legroom for the rest of us, all sweetened by a dollop of nostalgic good taste. Washington's next stadium is sure to have more of a Martha Stewart/Ken Burns sensibility.
If RFK's Spartan box seats and boot-camp latrines could talk, what a grand story they might tell! Then, when they were done rattling on about the Redskins, they would turn to baseball and recount a tale so full of failure and inadequacy it makes Tobacco Road seem like self-help. During the 10 seasons the Senators played at RFK, the team lost 932 games, finishing last or next-to-last six times. In their lone winning season, the Senators still wound up 23 games out of the playoffs.
About the only good thing to be said for RFK baseball was that many seats were so far from the action that fans could barely make out what was happening. Plus, people smoked in those days, so the air was kind of hazy -- sometimes murk is your friend.
This is not jaded. This is reality. You must keep reminding yourself of Washington's grim history even as this new chapter is about to unfold. Marinate your brainpan in the doom that is Washington baseball. It's simple self-preservation. Baseball can't crush your dreams if you never let them sprout.
Finally, when you've achieved the proper frame of mind, utterly hopeless and devoid of illusions, you step into the bowl of the ballpark, just as thousands of fans will do for the Washington Nationals home opener on the evening of April 14. You take that first step from the gloom of the tunnel into the big, open yard. You squint a little. And you can't help it. You remember the first time.
Ah, say it ain't so -- they've got you remembering Dad, and that aching, unrequited lust for a foul ball in your mitt, and the popcorn box that becomes a megaphone when you punch the bottom out of it.
You look down at the grass. You look up at the sky.
That sky has the quality of a painted chapel ceiling, you think.
Yeesh. Two minutes inside the park, and you're thinking those insane romantic thoughts again.
Already, they've got you imagining that baseball is a lovely pastoral rather than a Brueghellian hell.
They've got you dreaming. Which means they've got you right where they want you, that cunning cartel of real estate tycoons, television hucksters and fellows in need of a good tax shelter, which is to say the barons of Major League Baseball. Despite all your best efforts, they've got you hoping.
Which is nuts, right?
AT FIRST GLANCE, THE ANSWER IS YES. HOPING IS NUTS.
According to thousands of impassioned essays, expostulations and rants preserved on the Internet, baseball has been thoroughly ruined during its decades away from Washington. Commissioner Bud Selig has ruined baseball. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has ruined baseball. Free agency and high player salaries have ruined baseball. Fancy ballparks have ruined baseball. Home runs have ruined baseball.