For the Books, Nationals Face History Questions
Thursday, August 31, 2006
Over the final month of the season, Washington Nationals left fielder Alfonso Soriano will almost certainly hit at least two more home runs. When he does, he'll establish a franchise record -- most homers in a season. The moment will be dutifully noted by the media: Last night, Soriano set a club record with his 45th home run, eclipsing the mark set by Vladimir Guerrero in 2000. Yet Guerrero, a slugging outfielder, never played a game in the District.
He was a Montreal Expo -- a hero in Quebec, an afterthought in the U.S. capital. Rather, the white seats that dot the upper deck at RFK Stadium commemorate the gargantuan blasts of Frank Howard, who hit 48 homers in 1969 -- as a Washington Senator. Does the record Soriano is pursuing belong, then, to Howard, who launched more homers than anyone ever wearing a uniform emblazoned with the word "Washington"?
The Nationals -- trying to establish a foothold in the District, scheduled to move into a new stadium in 2008 -- must sort through their split history. As they prepare for the future, they are asking: What is our past?
"I, myself, would not know what position to take," said Seymour Siwoff, president of Elias Sports Bureau Inc., Major League Baseball's official statistician. "Am I really a brand-new franchise? Do I have a heritage in my new city? If it flatters me, I have a heritage, and I'll use it. If not, maybe not. . . . There's not really a right answer."
Or, as Nationals President Stan Kasten put it, "There's not really a wrong answer."
Soriano's pursuit is the first indication that the Nationals have something to grapple with in the coming months and years. They are a franchise that began in Montreal in 1969 but two years ago wound up in Washington, a city that was deserted by two versions of the Senators -- first for Minnesota, then for Texas. In a sport that values history more than any other, do the Nationals embrace Guerrero, who never played here, or Howard, who never played for their franchise? The questions are simple, the answers complicated. Who belongs to us? To whom do we belong? And how do we honor all of it?
Kasten's wish is that the discussion will be fun, not contentious. "I love debates like this," he said. Yet, as Siwoff said, "There is a romance to baseball." And romance can breed the strongest of emotions.
"There's no feeling, there's no emotion regarding the Expos in Washington," said Phil Wood, a Washington native, sports radio host and an expert in the District's baseball history. "The identity of the Expos is gone. You start fresh."
Just wipe out the Expos? They were, after all, a major league team from 1969 to 2004, one with a story all its own. Their heroes -- from Coco Laboy to Rusty Staub to Tim Raines to Guerrero -- can't just disappear, can they?
"It drives me crazy," said Henry Thomas, grandson of the legendary Walter Johnson, perhaps the greatest player ever to don a Washington uniform. "I just think it's silly to even talk about it, that so-and-so has set a franchise record, and they're breaking the record of some Expo."
Yet Kasten and his front-office staff are talking about it. The new stadium could potentially include nods to a hodgepodge of groups -- the Senators, the Expos, the Homestead Grays, who dominated the Negro leagues.
"History, in baseball, is important," Kasten said. "But I'm always going to keep my focus on the current product and what my current customers are interested in."
Both Kasten and Mark Lerner, son of the club's principal owner Theodore N. Lerner, emphasized that no decision has been made. But last night, the younger Lerner, a Washington native, said it was appropriate that the team recognize the District's baseball heritage.
"We want to emphasize the teams that played here, the players who played here," Lerner said. "But there's so many avenues to go, so many ways you could do it. We'll have some decisions to make."
This isn't the first time Washington baseball has grappled with such issues. When the original Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961, they were immediately replaced in the District by an expansion team, also called the Senators.
The Twins, though, arrived in Minnesota with no history from which to draw. So they took the Senators' marks. Johnson, who won 417 games for the Senators, instantly became the most accomplished pitcher in the history of the Twins -- even though he never pitched for Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the new Senators -- equipped with an entirely different front-office staff and roster of players -- also wanted a sense of history. So they, too, used the old Senators' records. The two franchises quarreled over the rights to the numbers for four or five seasons until Joe Cronin, the president of the American League, stepped in, awarding the Washington franchise the use of the records of the franchise that had left the District. The Twins had to start over . . . that is, until the new Senators up and moved to Texas after the 1971 season.
"When they moved, we pretty much picked up the old records again," said Tom Mee, the Twins' director of public relations back then.
To this day, the Twins' Record & Information Book -- the team's version of the annual media guide -- has a section labeled: "Franchise Records (1901-2005)." It notes that Rod Carew had the highest batting average for a single season of any Twin (.388 in 1977), a mark that beat out Goose Goslin's sterling 1928 season, in which he hit .379 -- for the Senators. The Twins even paid homage to Johnson, the Hall of Famer who played in Washington from 1907 to '27, by giving away bobblehead dolls of the "Big Train" in 2004.
And what about the Texas Rangers? By the same thought process, the expansion Senators -- who played in Washington from 1961 to '71 -- should be represented similarly in the Rangers' media guide. And they are, albeit in a two-page section entitled "The Rangers Before Texas" that lists each player who wore a Senators' uniform during those years; it also contains a brief history of records for that team.
"We don't use the term 'franchise records,' " said Gregg Elkin, the Rangers' senior director of baseball media relations. So in the "Records" section of the guide, there are no references to anything that happened before 1972, even though Howard's 48 homers in 1969 -- one mark Soriano is chasing in Washington -- would be third on the franchise's single-season list, nestled behind Alex Rodriguez, who hit 57 in 2002 and 52 in 2001.
Siwoff, baseball's statistician, said it is the prerogative of each club to choose which history to honor, which records to claim as its own. MLB officials said the general practice has been for records to remain with their franchises even if the franchises relocate. The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, for instance, moved to Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively, in 1958. Both clubs took their records with them.
Still, it's an inconsistent policy. In 1954, the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles. But in their media guide, the Orioles have no mention of Browns' greats such as George Sisler, a Hall of Fame first baseman. Time, according to the Orioles, began in 1954. The Browns' records have evaporated.
"The records are there," said Jim Gates, the library director at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. "It's up to each team how to use them, and it's basically a public relations decision."
Other sports, too, are riddled with inconsistent standards. When owner Robert Irsay infamously loaded moving vans to take the National Football League's Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis for the 1984 season, he carted the records with him. Because Irsay did so, when Petyon Manning tossed his 33rd touchdown pass of the 2000 season, he was credited with breaking the record Johnny Unitas set for the Colts in 1959 -- in Baltimore.
Unitas never played in Indianapolis, never lived in Indianapolis. He defined pro football in Baltimore . He once had a conversation with Kevin Byrne, now a senior vice president for the Baltimore Ravens, on the topic. "I'm not an Indianapolis Colt," Byrne recalled Unitas saying. "They don't break any of my records over there. I have all my records."
But when Art Modell returned pro football to Baltimore in 1996 -- moving his Cleveland Browns east -- he brought none of the history. Not the name. Not the uniforms. Not the records. Paul Tagliabue, then the commissioner of the NFL, advised Modell that because the move was so controversial, because Clevelanders were so devastated, he would be best served to allow the Browns' records to stay in Ohio.
Modell's team became the Ravens and started its history from scratch. To this day, the Ravens have no mention of their attachment to the Browns in any of their official literature, only a section on the history of pro football in Baltimore -- an homage to the Colts. Cleveland landed an expansion franchise that began play in 1999. Yet the new Browns inherited the history of their predecessors, claiming as their own greats such as Jim Brown and Ozzie Newsome, even though Newsome left when the Browns became the Ravens. He now serves as the general manager in Baltimore, working for the franchise for which he played, a franchise that doesn't acknowledge the records he set.
A Way to Recognize
Kasten, has dealt with these issues previously, when he was the president of the Atlanta Braves beginning in the late 1980s. The Braves have as multitiered a history as any team in baseball, beginning as the Boston Red Caps in 1876, becoming the Boston Braves in 1912, moving to Milwaukee in 1953, then on to Atlanta in 1966. When Kasten was developing the team's new ballpark, Turner Field, in the mid-1990s, he wanted to make sure the franchise's itinerant history was well-represented. So in a section of the park commemorating the past hang three World Series banners -- one from Boston in 1914, one from Milwaukee in 1957, and one from Atlanta in 1995.
"That was convenient," Kasten said. "It was a nice, neat way to recognize all three chapters."
There are some odd honorees, too. Eddie Mathews, the great Braves third baseman, has his number retired and his image on Turner Field's outfield wall -- though he played just one of his 17 seasons in Atlanta. Warren Spahn, perhaps the best left-hander of all time, never pitched in Atlanta, yet his number is retired by the franchise.
The message from MLB: To each his own. "Baseball," Siwoff said, "has the right to determine its own records."
The Nationals, therefore, have the right to determine their own history. They have, to this point, done their best to acknowledge it all. When the team moved from Montreal for the 2005 season, club officials consulted with Elias on the best course to take. The result: Three history sections in the media guide -- one outlining the records for baseball in Washington, including both versions of the Senators; one on franchise records, dating from the Expos' first year of 1969 and including the Nationals; and one Nationals-only section, which, in this year's guide, includes only marks set in 2005, their first year here.
Yet, the Expos' retired numbers -- 8 for Gary Carter, 10 for both Andre Dawson and Staub, 30 for Raines -- remain retired only in Montreal, where there is no longer major league baseball. The numbers 8 and 10 are worn by current Nationals Marlon Anderson and Brandon Harper.
As for what will be done going forward, that remains an open question. Kasten joked, "There's no question Walter Johnson was one of the greatest players in history -- the history of the Minnesota Twins." Thomas, Johnson's grandson, said he would like to see statues of both Johnson and Josh Gibson, the legendary catcher for the Grays, outside the new park. Even short of that, he and others believe the Nationals -- formerly the Expos, playing in the home city of the Senators and the Grays -- must in some way acknowledge Washington's baseball past.
"It's incredibly important," Thomas said. "There's so much history there, why you wouldn't want to do that, I just can't even imagine."