To judge by the grousing, baseball is the biggest pile of ruins since Pompeii.
Type the phrase "ruining baseball" into a search engine, and watch 2,000 citations pop up -- more than double that when you add "ruin baseball" and "ruined baseball." By comparison, "ruining football" produces about 600 hits, most of them referring to soccer.
Drugs are ruining baseball. High ticket prices are ruining baseball. Interleague play is ruining baseball. The shrinking strike zone, the length of time between pitches and the QuesTec umpire evaluation system are ruining baseball. Drunk fans are ruining baseball. Recorded music played at loud volume is ruining baseball. Players who won't sign autographs are ruining baseball.
Ruination has been relentless for decades. The designated hitter ruined baseball. Strikes by the players union ruined baseball. Indoor stadiums ruined baseball.
But maybe this is to Washington's advantage; after all, baseball always stank here. Ruining Washington baseball is like spoiling a block of Velveeta: Who could tell? With the exception of two flukey years in the 1920s -- and a glorious part-time team we will talk about later -- Washington's big-league experience has been half heartache, half humiliation. Not even the most empurpled poetaster of the emerald diamond and the sylvan chessboard could conjure up a golden age of Washington baseball. We stank since before there were three outs per inning. We stank before there was overhand pitching.
According to Total Baseball, the official record book of this most recorded of all sports, Washington's first big-league club completed just 28 games in 1875, losing all but five of them, and somehow managed to end the season more than 40 games out of first place.
That club folded. Another came along. In 1884, our American Association squad went 12-51 before quitting the league in midseason.
That club folded. Along came another, now in the National League. Washington reeked through the 1890s. A low point came in 1899, when an Ohio team called the Cleveland Spiders endured the worst season in major-league history. The Spiders won 20 games and lost 134. During one long stretch, they went 1 and 40.
Their lone win was a 5-4 squeaker over . . . Washington, which folded a few months later.
Yet another franchise came along in 1901, now in the American League. This time, Washington did something we had never done before: signed a bona fide star still near the peak of his powers. Ed Delahanty was a strapping, square-jawed slugger, the best hitter of his day. An esteemed authority on baseball history, Bill James, has compared Delahanty to the seemingly incomparable Joe DiMaggio. The man batted .346 over 16 seasons. He once went 9 for 9 in a double-header.
But after just one full season in Washington, Big Ed started drinking even more heavily than usual. Suspended from the team during a trip to Detroit, he boarded a train for home. Blotto, he brandished a straight razor at other passengers. The conductor stopped the train near the Canadian border and dumped Delahanty trackside. Our star went reeling into the night, plunged from the International Bridge into the Niagara River, washed over Niagara Falls, and was pureed by the propeller of a sightseeing boat.
Washington: "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League."
Here was a city with more than 70 years in the majors and scarcely any joy to show for it. Take away Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson, and the saga's about as uplifting as smallpox.
Washington: A place where, legend had it, the first-base path at old Griffith Stadium was a foot short and slightly downhill on account of how slow the home team was.
Where the total paid attendance for a 1954 game against Philadelphia was 460.
We lost that American League franchise in 1961 to Minneapolis -- Minneapolis! -- a little burg on the prairie where it has been known to snow up to six weeks after Opening Day. The team owner, a man named Calvin Griffith, poured acid on the wound a few years later when he explained that he chose Minneapolis because it was full of white people. Griffith's family had fielded lousy teams for decade after decade, but somehow in his addled mind it was the fault of Washington's black residents that the franchise failed.
Then came that carbuncle of a team at RFK Stadium.
SO BASEBALL WAS BAD BEFORE, AND NOW THEY'VE RUINED IT. But can't we find some reason to rekindle Washington's faint hopes?
Let's look at it this way: Maybe it depends on what we mean when we say "baseball." Big-league ball is not, in fact, a single phenomenon. It is really three separate phenomena, vitally related but ultimately quite different from one another.
First, there is a game played by a group of physically gifted, highly competitive, often personally revolting men.
Second, there is the multibillion-dollar business -- as soulless and calculating as any ruthless monopoly you're of a mind to name -- that has grown up around that game.
And last, there is the fan's version of baseball: a beguiling amusement, a well-plotted diversion, enjoyed by millions of people who like to watch, argue about, wager on, parse and study the game, all the while rooting with slightly unhinged ardor for one particular team.
Let's take them one by one.
"THAT IS THE STORY OF BASEBALL IN RECENT YEARS. Everyone in the game has been hoping the lie could last as long as possible. They wanted steroids in the game to make it more exciting, hoping they would be able to build its popularity back up after the disastrous cancellation of the 1994 World Series. So when I taught other players how to use steroids, no one lifted a finger."
So says Jose Canseco, former American League MVP, in Juiced, his recent bestseller advocating better baseball through chemistry. In his text, as in his life, Canseco reminds us that the less you know about ballplayers, the easier it is to love the game. Perhaps that is why fans are so intense about statistics. The gray scrim of the box scores filters out any recognition of the actual people behind the stats.
The fact that Joe Jackson was as stupid as a mailbox, that Ty Cobb was a racist snake, that Babe Ruth was a sex fiend, that DiMaggio was a friendless cad, that Mickey Mantle's true breakfast of champions was beer and amphetamines -- all this and much more has been known for generations and just as long ignored.