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Michael Wilbon

With D.C. Back in the Market, It's Time to Go Shopping for a Name

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page D11

Baseball had returned to Washington, officially, for less than an hour yesterday afternoon and already you could hear the debate in earnest. Already there were Internet polls, pamphlets being distributed at the official announcement of the Expos' relocation to D.C. There was throwback gear everywhere, Walter Johnson jerseys I've never seen previously. Folks had come up with elaborate new logos and color schemes, most involving red-white-and-blue.

If you listened, and not particularly closely, you could hear the suggestions about a name for the team that play to Washington being the national seat of government, including the Deficits, the Filibusters, the Whigs, the Pundits and the Representatives (hey, how about a little equal time for the other house) which could be nicely shortened to the Reps.

A new ownership group is still in the works, but will it choose to go with the recent past and stick with the Senators or take a different tack, via the Homestead Grays, or perhaps the Eels, Snakeheads, River Rats or River Dogs? (Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)

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You could hear a bunch of new suggestions that play off the new stadium location just off the Anacostia River, including the Eels, the Snakeheads, the River Rats and the River Dogs. Particularly when it comes to sports, folks think everything should be participatory now, even when most of the suggestions fall somewhere between fairly absurd and totally absurd.

There are only four reasonable choices for the name of the new Washington Baseball Club: Senators, Nationals (if they play in the National League), Americans (if they play in the American League) and Grays. That's it, that's the list. Anything else is a waste of time to even consider, even the Monuments. A poll on washingtonpost.com last night had "Senators" way out front, getting some 54 percent of the vote. "It'll come as no surprise to you that Senators sounds good to me," Chuck Hinton, the former Senators outfielder, said.

Native Washingtonian Jim Kimsey, whose business sense, common sense and influence were critical in attracting the team to the District, said: "Senators has a certain nostalgic component. The name needs to capture what the team means to the city. And it needs to be a very, very good alternative not to use Senators."

There might be only one very, very good alternative: Grays. Baseball, more than any other sport, sells nostalgia, from the retro ballparks that have popped up around the major leagues (and presumably will here, too, on the Anacostia waterfront) to throwback jerseys. And while there's arguing against Senators or Nationals from a historic standpoint, the name Grays qualifies historically, and has perhaps a more romantic link to Washington's baseball past.

The Senators, let's face it, were losers. Big losers. The franchise was contracted by the National League in 1900, left town for Minneapolis in 1960, bolted town again, for Texas, in 1971. The Senators had 11 straight losing seasons to start their American League history in 1901, then lost at least 100 games in each of their first four seasons as an expansion team in the early 1960s. Where do you think "First in War, First in Peace, last in the American League" as a depiction of Washington came from?

Only the Cubs, White Sox and Red Sox have been bigger losers historically than the Senators. Now, if the owners or whoever names this team want to embrace the cuddly loser identity, which the Cubs and Red Sox have capitalized on for years, then Senators is probably the way to go.

But if we're talking about grabbing hold of a name that symbolizes baseball strength while also connecting with tradition, Grays does that.

The Grays won nine straight Negro National League pennants when the team played here, from the late 1930s until 1950.

Not only was it probably the greatest Negro League franchise of all, but with apologies to Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs, it was the most glamorous of all the Negro League teams and at its height featured Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. And if your first inclination is that a 15-year-old kid has never heard of Josh Gibson, chances are you're right . . . and he's never heard of Frank Howard either. I remember Sam Lacy, the great sportswriter for the Afro-American newspapers, telling me that one season in the late 1930s or early '40s, Gibson hit more home runs than the entire Senators lineup.

Look, team nicknames are selected nowadays to facilitate marketing.

And one of the huge dilemmas baseball faces across the country now is trying to appeal to a much-needed but recently lost market: African-American fans. There have been more than a few meetings on what to do about black folks' dwindling interest in baseball, as it increases to the point of saturation in pro basketball and football.

At his news conference yesterday, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams said he preferred the name Grays in homage to the Negro League franchise.

It's not like the name Grays symbolizes anything bad to folks who aren't black. The first person I heard lobby for Grays was ESPN anchor Dan Patrick. Laura Meissner, handing out pamphlets yesterday titled "Bring the Grays Back to Washington," is a young white woman who is vice president of a group devoted to remembering the Grays. A team embracing Negro League history at its best might not work everywhere, but one would think it could work here, in the blackest city in America.

You want a flying start with jersey sales and nostalgic remembrances, and a city-wide feeling of inclusion, name the team the Grays and watch what happens. The team would appeal to such an expanded market.

When it comes to these nicknames, I'm a traditionalist. While I would never criticize Abe Pollin for renaming the Bullets the Wizards because he was displaying uncommon sensitivity (for an owner) to the gun violence that plagued D.C. in the early and mid-1990s, I hope he returns to Bullets at some point. These new alliterative names (Tennessee Titans) are fine, but Raptors and Wizards and these newfangled things that inspire visuals, motion and the like trend up for a while, then down.

It's a shame that the NFL didn't make the Colts leave the jersey, the name and all their records in Baltimore, which the league got right some years later when it told the Browns all such things belonged to Cleveland. The Jazz should be the name of the team playing in New Orleans, not the one playing in Salt Lake City. So you won't read any argument here against the Senators, because that name belongs to Washington, should the team choose to use it.

What's best about sports, particularly baseball, is that your team is connected to something that existed before now, to something so grand and perhaps so old you imagine it in black and white. And while Senators and all that the name conjures would be a fine choice, a safe choice that nobody here could denounce and most people would feel very good about, Grays might reflect that bit of imagination that connects Washington quite nicely to its baseball heritage. It would also signal that the future for this franchise on the field is going to be a hell of a lot more rewarding than its past.

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