This was the day when the phones rang everywhere in the Washington area for everyone who loves baseball.
"Don't tell me what you're going to write, Boz," said ex-Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, just speaking as one D.C. kid who grew up loving the Senators to another. "Tell me what you feel."
The Capitol can be seen in the background from the proposed site of a new baseball stadium in Southeast.
(Evan Vucci -- AP)
I couldn't then. Maybe I can now. Generations of Washington area children will now get to feel some contemporary version of what captivated me from 1956 to 1971, when I took the streetcar to Griffith Stadium to root for Roy Sievers or rode my bike to RFK Stadium to watch Frank Howard's homers or took my dad to the last Nats' game 33 years ago today.
The modes of transportation and the names of the parks don't matter. In the Senators' first era here, they changed plenty between 1900 and 1971. But the central quality remains the same. That sweet interlacing of a dependable daily pleasure throughout your entire youth -- 162 times a year -- becomes part of the fabric of what you come to recognize as happiness.
"Mazel Tov," said Larry Lucchino, who used to run the Orioles and Padres, but now bosses the Red Sox. I assume he meant the phrase in honor of the late Shirley Povich who wrote about the Nats -- and getting them back -- from 1924 until 1998.
Lucchino was the force behind both Camden Yards and the new waterfront ballpark in San Diego that has been met with raves. And he loves the Southeast stadium site. The possibilities remind him of so many neglected, low-density urban areas that, once revived by a baseball stadium, suddenly became part of the heartbeat of their cities.
The Embarcadero in San Francisco was a dismal dump until Pac Bell was built. Now, it hums with beauty and vibrant city life. The first time I saw the proposed location, I said, "In a city as beautiful as San Francisco, they're going to build a ballpark here?" That's the point. Turn ugly into gorgeous. Now, McCovey Cove is one of Frisco's prime attractions.
The banks of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland stunk to heaven before Jacobs Field was built nearby. Now, you can dine in outdoor cafes a few yards from that river. I took a Washington friend, who'd grown up in Cleveland, to eat lunch there a few years ago. He just kept shaking his head and laughing through the meal. "This was just about the worst place in town," he said.
Now, it's one of the best. Isn't it funny how money is suddenly found to clean up pollution when it's next to economically important tourist venues? My guess is that the Anacostia River's days as an open sewer will be numbered.
For many years, I've tried to champion baseball for Washington, sometimes to bemused or indulgent laughter. Though I never advertised the fact, I was often a secret Doubting Thomas. It's one thing to believe that the District deserved and would support a team. But that's not the same as believing in your heart of hearts that "Senators III" would be a roaring success or, from the perspective of the entire city, a truly worthwhile civic project. A nagging cliche often echoed in my ear: "Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it."
Sometime in the last decade, however, that annoying skepticism changed. Perhaps the opening and success of both MCI Center and the new Washington Convention Center were final pieces of the picture. My doubts gradually evaporated until now only certainty remains. Washington should no longer be nagged by the unspoken worry that the return of baseball will somehow be a booby trap or a cruel joke, a waste of a third of a century or a financial blow to the best interests of the city as a whole.
"Sometimes, things are worth waiting for," Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig told me in a telephone interview yesterday. "Maybe baseball and Washington came back together at just the right time. . . . It must seem like it took forever to the people there. But the sport is in the middle of an unbelievable renaissance. You're getting the game back when it's at its best. We're setting attendance records.
"For so long everybody's been saying 'Washington is a completely different town than when it lost the Senators twice.' Well, I know that," said Selig, who has endured my harangues on that subject for more than 25 years. "But the District just seems to get better and better with the years. Now, you've got a mayor and a city government that are really committed and competent.
"The site of the new ballpark helps, too," said Selig, referring to the Anacostia waterfront location in Southeast in the midst of a blighted barely used area of town just 15 blocks from the U.S. Capitol that weeps for any kind of economic development. "Sociologically, that's something we like to do. It's always a very positive consideration."
So, finally, it's just the right time?
"Baseball can seem very slow moving and resistant to change. There's a lot of agonizing over decisions," Selig said. "Look at how long it took us to get three divisions and the wild card. But, my goodness gracious, now everybody loves it."
When a city's baseball fate is in the hands of a man who still says "my goodness gracious" -- and means it -- maybe sometimes it takes 33 years to fix an obvious problem. What's a third of a century? At least for those who live to see it.
"Let joy be unconfined. No sleep 'til morn," Lord Byron said.
What superb advice. Anybody got a National Bohemian, circa 1971?
Yes, the Washington Senators are coming back! We are finally getting exactly what we wished for so long. But we no longer need to be careful -- fearful -- about what the consequences of that deep desire will be. Selig senses this sea change from a distance. We should feel it, too.
Far from being some perverse trick, the announcement that the Expos are coming to Washington is exactly the joyous event we should desire and the outcome that we deserve.