Safe at Home

By Rocco Zappone
Sunday, March 23, 2008

I'VE LONG BELIEVED THAT WE EVENTUALLY GET ALL THE THINGS WE EVER REALLY WANT IN LIFE. It's just that, by the time we get them, we don't really want them anymore. Either we've moved on, or the objects of our desires have changed in ways that make them unrecognizable to us. Whatever the reason, active longing seems to meet fulfillment only rarely and fleetingly.

When Washington lost the Senators in 1971, I was 16, and it was the most traumatic experience of my life to that point. There had been no deaths in the family, no job losses for my father or major illnesses, and losing the Senators was my introduction to the unfairness of life. What had I done to deserve this? What had the people of Washington done? I saved The Washington Post from September 22, 1971, the one with the headline "Short Takes Senators to Texas," just as my family had saved the paper from November 23, 1963, announcing President Kennedy's assassination. But it was years before I could look at it.

Losing baseball was also the beginning of my obsession with the past, one that would take me far beyond Faulkner's assertion that "the past is never dead. It's not even past." As the ensuing springs and summers made clear the extent of my loss, I returned time and again, in my mind's eye, to those languid days at RFK Stadium. With each succeeding disappointment or defeat in life, I became more convinced that everything about the past was better than everything about the present. To me, the past was no longer just hovering in the background; it became something to be grasped at, to be re-created somehow.

For years following the departure of the Senators to Texas, bringing the game back stood in splendid isolation at the top of my wish list. I devoured every morsel of news about the prospects for a return. A congressman from Fresno, Calif., Bernie Sisk, endeared himself to me forever by heading up efforts to bring a team to Washington, though it did him no good with the voters back home. Every Shirley Povich column denouncing the injustice and stupidity of Washington being without a team brought a loud whoop of approval from me. And when it was announced, in 1973, that the San Diego Padres would be moving here the next year, I was as ecstatic as I had ever been.

Maybe if I'd been a little older and more experienced in these matters, I would have been more circumspect. But there didn't seem to be anything tentative about it. This was no pipe dream; they were coming. The anticipation of seeing baseball again at RFK Stadium had me in the clouds for months. I ordered past and present Padres press guides and yearbooks to familiarize myself with my new team. And I wasn't the only one who regarded the move as a certainty. The Topps trading card company printed up 1974 cards for the Padres' players with "WASHINGTON" emblazoned across the top.

Yes, there were some details to be worked out, nothing more. One of these turned out to be the 15 years remaining on the Padres' stadium lease in San Diego. The city of San Diego filed a lawsuit based on the lease that gummed up the process long enough for the city to find a buyer who would keep the team where it was. San Diego's angel:

McDonald's Chairman Ray Kroc.

I had lost another team before it had even gotten here. After the Padres episode, I never trusted any of the reports trumpeting the impending return of baseball to Washington. I also never felt the same about the Big Mac.

I BEGAN TO DEVELOP SERIOUS RESERVATIONS about the general direction of big-time sports. The influence of television had turned stadiums into studios. Rising ticket prices had made a once-democratic form of entertainment that was much like the movies, casual and cheap, into something more akin to the opera, a big night out that had to be planned way in advance. The eventual rise of the "family entertainment" concept at Camden Yards and its progeny reduced the games to mere sideshows, peripheral to the main business of relentless marketing and assaulting the senses with mindless diversions.

I had most definitely moved on. Later, I even decided that I must not have liked baseball all that much in the first place. I had just read too many sappy baseball memoirs and seen too many cornball Hollywood takes on the sport. How could I possibly have cared that much about something that I now regarded with such indifference or even disdain?

So the September 29, 2004, announcement of the Montreal

Expos' impending move to Washington left me cold. Out of some curiosity, I attended the official news conference/pep rally announcing the move, but I did so with a sense of civic obligation. For me, the event was much like the ceremonial day in September 1990 when Washington National Cathedral was officially completed. Both occasions were important days for the city and represented the coming to fruition of epic quests. But as I hovered on the fringes of the jubilant crowd at the baseball conference, I felt an odd sense of detachment. I was genuinely happy for the people who had worked so long and hard to bring this day about, but it was not my day. I was strictly an observer.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company