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Crime Report

Win Or Lose

In Washington, the return of baseball is the triumph of hope over experience

By David Von Drehle
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page PW18

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.

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.

Every few years, some former player or investigative journalist offers to pull back the curtain on baseball's reality. Canseco's book does so with the strange blend of swagger and paranoia that just so happens to be among the classic symptoms of steroid poisoning. Better by far was journeyman pitcher Jim Bouton's 1970 classic, Ball Four, a screwy and appalling (and very entertaining) memoir of lechery, substance abuse and practical jokes involving bodily wastes.

Fans look behind the curtain, then promptly and cheerfully forget what we've seen. The facts never really change, though players today have enough money to employ the players of Bouton's day as chauffeurs and pool boys. In every age, most baseball players are just what you would expect from any group of spoiled boys who, from early adolescence, are removed from reality to live, usually in their underwear, in locker rooms and dugouts full of spoiled boys just like them. Thanks to the minor league system, the game of baseball sinks its hooks into future stars in high school and in some cases never lets them go.

Of course, there are virtuous exceptions among the tens of thousands of men who have played the game. But the Roberto Clementes, the Felipe Alous, the Jeff Conines underscore by their rarity the general rule: No sport rivals baseball in its stifling of maturity. What Mad Magazine is to literature, what Howard Stern is to broadcasting, baseball is to athletics.

Even the oldest coaches squeeze their guts into a uniform and wedge their bunions into a pair of cleats for the rigorous labor of penciling names into a scorecard or answering the bullpen phone. Think about it. You don't see Joe Gibbs in shoulder pads. Eddie Jordan doesn't wear a singlet and shorts on the Wizards' bench. But a man like 74-year-old Don Zimmer, the gray and gelatinous Yankees coach who last played a game during the Johnson Administration (as an over-the-hill utility man for the hapless Senators), wears his uniform to work.

Baseball means never having to stifle a belch.

Most writers through the decades have chosen to help us forget this aspect of the game. Even the best: Roger Kahn's paean to the Brooklyn Dodgers immortalized men in their twenties and thirties as "The Boys of Summer." In John Updike's masterpiece of ballpark reportage, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," the kid in question is a 42-year-old man, Ted Williams. When these "boys," these "kids," behave like jerks, they will be rendered, in most outlets, as "feisty" or "temperamental." Borderline sociopaths are dubbed "mercurial," or -- if they've been indicted -- "controversial." The class clown is inevitably "colorful." And players who read books are called "professorial" (although you don't see this one much).

But now the game is caught up in a scandal far bigger than eternal adolescence, beyond even the power of euphemism to sweep away. An Olympic track and field coach in North Carolina became suspicious of a substance he saw being consumed by a number of athletes. He managed to acquire a syringeful and sent it off for testing; the substance turned out to be a synthetic steroid, THG.

Possessing steroids without a prescription has been illegal in the United States since 1991. So, on the trail of a possible crime, authorities visited the place where THG was manufactured, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO). The company's clients turned out to include -- among others -- the reigning home run king, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.

BALCO's owners, and their customers, have been hauled before a grand jury. Bonds reportedly acknowledged that he had been using THG, human growth hormone and other bodybuilding drugs for years -- but without ever asking what they were. His professed lack of curiosity may save Bonds, but in the meantime the cat's out of the bag for baseball, and Tabby's got 21-inch biceps.

"The challenge is not to find a top player who has used steroids. The challenge is to find a top player who hasn't," writes Canseco, who calls himself "The Chemist" and claims to have revolutionized the sport. During his mercurial and controversial career, Canseco bounced from club to club, and as he went, he says, he planted new crops of steroid-users like a hopped-up Johnny Appleseed. Judging from the numbers, the drugs worked wonders. During the five years Bonds was allegedly using undetectable steroids, his home-runs-per-season average rocketed from about 32 to about 52.

Pretty good improvement, given that the five years in question began when he was 35.

What's so bad about steroids? You know, besides the breasts, and the shrunken testicles, and the mental disorders and the occasional rare kidney tumor?

There's the tyranny of the drugs. When Bonds, one of the greatest players in history -- drugs or no drugs -- uses steroids and gets significantly better, then players who are trying to compete with him have little choice but to use them, too. And when these mid-range major leaguers start using, then minor league players have no choice but to join in. And when all the minor leaguers are consuming the drugs, then ambitious high school players will feel compelled to use them.

Or maybe the problem with steroids is that baseball is a finely calibrated game in which the quality of the athletes, the sophistication of the equipment and the dimensions of the field have maintained a remarkable harmony over the years. Everything improves, yet the game remains the same. The batter gets stronger and faster at the same rate that the fielder gets stronger and faster, and, as if by miracle, down through the decades the ground ball well-fielded at deep shortstop always arrives an eyeblink before the runner at first base. Steroids have screwed with the calibration of the game. What once was the gold standard of home run hitting -- 60 in a season -- is now just another good year. Through more than a century of major league baseball, the 60-homer season has been achieved just eight times, six of them in the past six years.

Relax and enjoy, Canseco enthuses. "Home runs are fun and exciting . . . easy for even the most casual fan to appreciate."

Major League Baseball recently announced a new testing regimen. Some experts are skeptical that it will do much good. One of the most-abused substances, human growth hormone, doesn't show up on the tests. But what are the alternatives? We can take Canseco's medical advice, based on many years of reading bodybuilding magazines, and start injecting steroids ourselves. ("Steroids, used correctly, will not only make you stronger and sexier, they will also make you healthier.") Or baseball could begin a whole new record book (Volume 2: The Biotech Era).

That's about it for options. You can't move the fences back, because the change would eventually make the outfields too big for three men to patrol.

Bonds, thanks to his extraordinary burst of late-career home runs, is closing in on one of the most storied records still in the books: the 755 career homers of Henry Aaron. Instead of hyping the chase for the record, however, Commissioner Selig tiptoed around the subject during the off-season like a ballerina in a minefield. The less said, apparently, the better.

THE MONEY END OF BASEBALL USED TO BE SO SIMPLE.

Back before the big cable TV deals, before the nouveau-retro stadiums with the tax-deductible luxury skyboxes, before the bobblehead dolls and the gourmet food courts, baseball revenue flowed mainly from tickets, junk food, soda and beer. A small piece of the pie went to players. The rest went into the owners' pockets.

Player salaries were predictable because the players were basically serfs -- beer-swilling, skirt-chasing serfs. They were vassals of the extraordinary power wielded by baseball's ownership cartel, which is exempt from the rules that govern the rest of us.

In 1922, an elderly Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declared, in one of the least-convincing Supreme Court decisions of the 20th century, that the interstate commerce clause does not apply to baseball. True, the teams went from state to state, and the wallets of the owners had begun to show a decidedly commercial bulge. "Exhibitions of base ball . . . are purely state affairs," Holmes wrote.

Liberated from federal antitrust laws, the owners were free to collude in ways that might make Mafia families blush. Every player, no matter how talented, was required to sign a "reserve" clause in his contract that had the potential to bind him to the same team forever.

Then came the union. Players discovered they could go on strike without jarring the planets from their courses.

In 1994, their strike scuttled the World Series. Not even Hitler and Tojo had halted the World Series.

Step by step and strike by strike, the players recast the business. They won free agency (the right to sell their services to the highest bidder). They won binding arbitration (the right to have a neutral party decide whether Mr. Owner's proposed raise is up to snuff).

Result: In current terms, the average salary of a major league player has jumped from about $140,000 when the Senators left town to nearly $2.5 million today, according to statistics published by Michael Haupert of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. A handsome, polite infielder with home run power, Alex Rodriguez, stands to make more than a quarter-billion dollars over his career.

Don't cry for the owners, though. "It's practically impossible to actually lose money owning a baseball team," according to Rodney Fort, a leading sports economist from Washington State University.

Owners can afford to shovel that jing into the locker rooms because they have figured out new ways to rake in more money. Today's fan often perches the family in premium-priced "club seats" purchased by an employer as a business expense. There, waiters deliver chow and cocktails fresh from restaurants around the ballpark. Meanwhile, TV monitors show the game as it appears on the local sports network -- which is, in many cases, owned by the team.

And beyond such obvious revenue sources are the less apparent ones. Suppose an owner is also a lawyer, Fort says, and the team buys its legal services from his law firm. "It looks like a cost, but actually it's money flowing to an owner.

"Then there are the values beyond cash," the professor continues. "If you own the baseball team, you're going to have access to all the downtown decision-making -- decisions of government boards, zoning departments, all kinds of stuff. And this information can be quite valuable when it comes to other business opportunities."

Not to mention the fancy accounting: "Suppose I buy a team," Fort postulates, "and I also own the stadium and a piece of the regional sports network." Obviously, someone who can afford to buy these various enterprises is the kind of person who has a complicated tax return. "Baseball gives me a lot of values in terms of being able to reveal revenues where they are most advantageous. . . . Depending on the year, I can show less on the balance sheet of the team and more on the balance sheet of the stadium or the network" -- whichever produces the lowest tax burden.

All this leads us to the hidden beauty of player salaries: They're tax-deductible! Yes, some people give their money to Children's Hospital or the Red Cross. Some give their money to Pedro Martinez. It's all worthwhile in the eyes of the IRS.

Fiscally speaking, a ballplayer is an asset, not an employee. He's not much different, in an auditor's eyes, from a new smelter or fish-filleting machine. Fans mourn the gradual cooling of a pitcher's fastball, but to the owner, it's not age, it's depreciation. Writing an eight-digit paycheck is less painful when Uncle Sam is kicking in.

Clark Griffith was a pretty good little pitcher for Chicago during the 1890s. At the end of his career, he moved to Washington to manage the Senators. He scraped up the money to buy the team in 1919. Baseball was his only business. Folks like that don't exist today.

"The typical owner of a baseball team is now either a conglomerate . . . or a wealthy individual who owns a (sometimes) related business and operates the baseball team on the side," Haupert has written. "This transition began to occur when the tax benefits of owning a baseball team became significant."

Player salaries are always good for a rant on sports radio, but hey: The players are the ones who pitch, hit and throw. Why shouldn't they share the wealth? What worries some owners is the ability of a few rich teams to buy their way into the playoffs year in and year out, paying salaries more appropriate for the sultan of Brunei than the Sultan of Swat. Small club owners want to squeeze more revenue-sharing from the likes of Yankees boss Steinbrenner. Otherwise, they warn, the Yankees will win every year, and fans will stop caring about the sport.

But is it true that baseball needs this so-called parity? It never did before. Consider the 1950s, baseball's zenith in many minds, when men named Mays and Mantle and Snider played double-headers to the reedy accompaniment of the stadium organist. Nine of 10 World Series in that decade featured at least one of the three New York teams. Half the years, the Series was an all-New York affair.

"The amazing thing," says Fort of the disparity among teams, "is that fans don't seem to bitch about it too much."

Fort has a theory: Just as the retail industry covers a spectrum from Saks Fifth Avenue to Wal-Mart, baseball runs the gamut from the Yankees to the Kansas City Royals. Some markets have the wealth and the interest to demand the best, while other markets are too poor, too small or too content to support a consistent winner. Saks makes money selling premium products; Wal-Mart makes money selling generics. In both cases, the money is equally green.

The implications of this are both powerful and unnerving. Washington might get exactly the team we are willing to demand.

What a terrible responsibility.

IT TAKES WEEKS TO SECURE AN INTERVIEW WITH WASHINGTON NATIONALS PRESIDENT TONY TAVARES. You figure he must be at spring training. Then you meet him, and his broad face is a bit on the pale side. Turns out he's just been busy, too busy for spring training.

What's the point of running a baseball franchise if you can't hang out at spring training?

The office he occupies, courtesy of a local law firm, has the almost-empty feel of a bachelor's first apartment. A few ball caps are scattered on a shelf; a few papers are piled on the standard-issue mahogany furnishings. If Tavares had a refrigerator, you would expect it to contain four bottles of beer, half a jar of old salsa and some moldy takeout.

"All work and no play is making me a dull boy," he says.

The frenzy began the moment last

season ended. Tavares hurriedly packed up the operation formerly known as the Montreal Expos. Montreal and D.C. make an apt pairing -- if the Expos had survived another 30 or 40 years, the club was on track to rival the Senators in terms of enduring lack of luster. Born as an expansion franchise in the 1969 season, the Expos racked up 35 years of futility, brightened only by a couple of near-pennants back in the days of shag haircuts and pastel polyester uniforms. The best season in franchise history, most experts agree, was the one that didn't happen. In 1994, when the 'Spos led the NL East by six games and the players went on strike.

Montreal was a club where future stars prepared for free agency and washed up stars fell back to Earth -- a team equal parts acne and osteoporosis. Commissioner Selig proposed killing the franchise a few years ago. Instead, major league owners pooled their money, bought the team and began hunting for a town where people actually like baseball. It's hard to say whether Montreal fans were upset, because they were as rare as pandas; last season, the club averaged fewer than 10,000 spectators per game.

Is Washington a place that likes baseball? So far, signs are mixed. Season-ticket sales have gone gangbusters. Would-be Nats fans flocked to Florida for the preseason. On the other hand, in December the D.C. Council nearly scrapped the deal that has brought baseball back to Washington, and many of the residents thronging public council meetings seemed pleased by the prospect.

Tavares appears sanguine. He, at least, believes this will go well. Baseball, he ventures, "is a sport that has endured. It's something passed down from dad, from a grandfather, a grandmother, a mom, who takes you to your first game . . . And you never forget the smell of the hot dogs and the popcorn, the noise of the crowd yelling. The whole ambiance of the event somehow captures people."

He continues: "At certain periods of the game, it is like -- I don't know -- like sitting in a pasture looking at flowers. There's a peacefulness. And then something happens, and the crowd erupts into raucous applause. Then everything calms back down for a moment."

Many people have a word for this aspect of baseball, and that word is "boring." But the Nats don't need everybody. They should be able to build a contender on something close to 3 million tickets a year.

Last year, the 30 teams that make up major league baseball averaged approximately 30,000 fannies in the seats at each of 81 home games, a record. Tavares is confident Washington will at least match that average and possibly exceed it, and just in case, he is pricing tickets at RFK on the low side.

"If you look at the statistics from last season, more people went to major league baseball games than at any time in the history of the game," Tavares says. "More people watched baseball on television than ever before. We've had our trouble -- it took us years to claw our way back from the damage done by the 1994 work stoppage. But I think we can now say that baseball has come through this rather nicely."

As for the Nats: "I promise we're going to be competitive. And then we'll get better next year and better the next, so that by the time we get to our new stadium, we will be a team of championship caliber."

A. BARTLETT GIAMATTI, A PROFESSOR OF RENAISSANCE POETRY who became commissioner of Major League Baseball, once wrote of his beloved game: "It is designed to break your heart."

And he wasn't even a Senators fan.

He continued: "The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."

As we prepare for the return of Washington baseball, maybe we can all learn from the Renaissance poets. Go ahead and raise those hopes -- let them soar! It's so exquisitely romantic when they're dashed.

Or, more prosaically, we might say: Let your hopes creep up, but be sure you hope for the right things. Baseball ain't art. It's not a religion or a philosophy. It solves no problems and cures no diseases. Baseball takes money from people who have less -- average fans -- and gives it to people who have more -- players and owners. If the team can persuade taxpayers to foot the cost of building a stadium, then the rich get even richer at public expense. (Now there's a sport in which Washington has always led the league.)

The reasonable hope, from a well-run sports franchise, is some entertainment and a happy feeling around town. Enough wins to soothe the city's perpetual inferiority complex. Now and then, a shot at a championship. That should not be too much to ask; the Redskins have entertained and unified the Washington area for generations.

Once upon a time, we had a baseball team like that: well-run, entertaining, pride-inducing. The team was the Homestead Grays, one of the best clubs in the history of segregated, black baseball. Founded in a steel-mill suburb of Pittsburgh, the Grays were owned and managed with flair and efficiency by an impresario named Cumberland Posey Jr. Posey realized that Washington had a large and prosperous black population, and he began scheduling more and more of his team's games at Griffith Stadium. By the 1930s and '40s, the Grays were more Washington than Homestead.

Most of the best players ever to sit in the home dugout at Griffith were members of the Grays. There was Oscar Charleston, widely regarded as the finest of the Negro League players. On offense, Charleston hit for power and average and commanded the base paths. On defense, the baseball Hall of Fame credits him with "revolutionizing defensive play in center field." Legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw, who saw the likes of Speaker and Cobb and Hornsby and Ruth, rated Charleston the best he ever saw.

And catcher Josh Gibson, a home run hitter equal to any in history. Walter Johnson of the Senators saw Gibson play in Washington and summed him up succinctly: "He hits the ball a mile. Throws like a rifle."

And Buck Leonard at first base. Judy Johnson at third. Cool Papa Bell, the speed-demon who took up Charleston's post in center. All Hall of Famers.

From 1937 to 1945, the Grays won nine consecutive pennants and three Negro World Series. Then baseball integrated, and by 1950, the Grays were just a memory.

There's nothing left of weird old Griffith Stadium. But back in the day, you could get there by promenading down U Street past the theaters and nightclubs where Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway -- everyone, really -- played to packed houses. At the end of the U Street rialto loomed the double-decked ballpark. Inside, you could marvel at the almost limitless expanse of left field, wonder at the strange notch in center, where the fence jogged inward to avoid an old building, and enjoy the familiar sight of the National Bohemia beer bottle towering over right.

Howard University Hospital now occupies the site. Nearby one recent winter morning, Granson Williams, a Howard groundskeeper, finishes a bit of late-winter planting, then pauses by his truck to point to the very spot where the stadium stood.

"I was a little kid, 9 or 10 years old, when they tore it down," Williams says. Growing up in the neighborhood, the old park was a landmark, but the Senators held no appeal. Williams never went inside.

But this is a springlike morning, and Williams finds himself in a hopeful mood. He's going to give the Nationals a try. He will see what comes of the club's promises to reach out to the entire community and whether black Washingtonians -- the working class as well as the rich -- reap benefits.

"It all depends on how it's structured," Williams says. "I took my daughter to the MCI Center for a Wizards game. We spent $250, what with tickets and parking and a meal at the nearby eateries. And it was worth every penny to do that with my kid. You can't put a price on that."

I guess I'll give the Nats a try as well. Because no matter how many times baseball is ruined, it can still be a swell thing to watch. It looks, feels and smells like summertime, languorous and indolent. Baseball unfolds. It has that unhurried, all-the-time-in-the-world feeling that is an essence of childhood.

Perhaps this is why, as Tony Tavares notes, so many people cite memories of Dad and Mom, Grandpa and Grandma, when they talk about their baseball dreams. Players aren't the only ones for whom baseball means never growing up. Fans enter a ballpark with the lightened spirit, the unburdened relief, of a kid freshly sprung from school.

Football is gladiatorial. Basketball is urgent. Baseball appeals to the story lovers and storytellers in us. It's a series of set-piece dramas: protagonists versus antagonists, pitchers versus hitters, catchers versus base runners, fielders versus real estate. The fastball thrown in the fifth inning can set up the slider that strikes out the last batter in the ninth. The tiny drama of each pitch distills the slightly larger drama of an inning, and the inning condenses the yet larger drama of an entire game. Games add up to streaks and slumps and pennant races, and all these, woven together, make the story of a season.

Like any good serial novel or soap opera, you can turn away for a week or a month or half a lifetime and easily pick up the thread when you return.

Best of all, every now and then a season culminates in something like last October. The slow unfurling of the summer and early fall snapped taut. Night after night through the playoffs and World Series, cliffhangers alternated with pyrotechnics. Baseball is Bonds and Canseco and Selig, but it's also Boston blazing through that marvelous post-season, wounded heroes coming through in the clutch and feckless princelings redeemed when it counted. When power was subverted, a curse was broken and -- that favorite tale of nearly every child -- the underdog finally won.

So . . . let's hope. Here's to the Nationals, and to a new and better Washington baseball story.

David Von Drehle is a staff writer for the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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