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Caps Are Picking Up Where They Left Off

By George Solomon
Sunday, September 28, 2008

So quietly, it seems, the Washington Capitals have slipped over the boards onto the ice in the middle of Dallas week to announce their presence to Washington and proclaim their late-season surge to the NHL's Southeast Division title was no fluke.

In their first week of practice, the Caps drew lively crowds to their practice rink in Ballston and swept exhibition games against division rival Carolina. Caps all-world forward Alex Ovechkin scored two goals Thursday night in front of 13,266 fans at Verizon Center and Ray Bourque's kid, Chris, scored one.

"A different vibe," owner Ted Leonsis said of the aura surrounding his team this season.

The coach, Bruce Boudreau, who spent his whole career in the minors before replacing Glen Hanlon last Thanksgiving when the club was in the cellar, reveled in the drive to the playoffs. He not only motivated his players, he delighted fans with his unassuming candor and wit.

Boudreau has more parts now to go with Ovechkin -- plus a quality goalie in José Théodore and a lively locker room that includes returning veteran Sergei Fedorov.

"Last year we found out what it was like to win," Boudreau said. "It was a great feeling just to get in. We got to the playoffs, but didn't go anywhere, or win nothing."

Maybe the Caps didn't go anywhere in the playoffs, as Boudreau said, but they did win something important at the time: the town.

Dallas Week Musings

What's with Dallas being an 11-point favorite? Who made that line, Jerry Jones?

Since the rivalry began in 1960, Dallas has won 56 times (mostly because of cheap chop-blocks and lucky passes by Longley, Staubach and Aikman), the Redskins won 38 times, and there have been two ties.

But, most of all about Dallas week, I miss:

· Tom Landry's car coat, the RFK stands shaking behind Landry.

· I wish Dexter were still 27 and playing.

· George Allen saying: "Roger Staubach runs at his own risk."

· Give me one more quarter of Darrell Green defending against Michael Irvin. Just one more.

· Is there anything better on film, besides "Casablanca," than former Redskins quarterback Sam Wyche saying in the final seconds of the 1972 NFC title game: "Die! Die you Dallas dogs!." Or Darryl Grant scoring that touchdown in '83? I miss Tex Schramm and the Squire, Sonny bringing his guys from behind, Kilmer over the top to Taylor in '72, Jerry Smith in the end zone, Brig Owens scoring in '73, Ken Houston keeping Garrison out of the end zone that same year, Larry Brown blocking for Charley Harraway on that Cotton Bowl run in '71, Calvin Hill and Duane Thomas playing for the Redskins against the Pokes.

· Remember Doc Walker, Art Monk and the Fun Bunch doing their thing in the Cowboys' end zone in '83 long before Terrell Owens became Terrell Owens?

· Suggestion for Jim Zorn: Show 'em the Wyche clip before the game.

The Week That Was

What a week. The New York Times used the word "chaos" in a headline to describe Washington during this current economic mess. Meanwhile, Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell also used the word "chaos" to describe the Nationals' disastrous season -- along with "stinks," "bush-league," "timid" and "bone-deep disappointment."

The Washington Times was even more dire Tuesday in its reporting and assessment of the team and front office, prompting at least one pre-2005 baseball proponent to wonder: Is this what we waited 33 years for?

To which Dan Gray of Falls Church, one of 23,299 fans in attendance at Nationals Park on Wednesday night, said in admiration: "Just look at the enthusiasm in this place in the last week of the season, for a last-place team."

So don't blame the 2,321,988 fans who saw the Nats play in their new park for generating the smallest attendance for any new stadium opening since 1991. The team lost 100. Whatever disappointment the franchise shoulders is the responsibility of the owners: Ted and Mark Lerner, with team president Stan Kasten and General Manager Jim Bowden.

"I see a team of youth and athleticism that continues to improve," Kasten said the other night. "We're better now than we were at the start of the season. When you have the youngest team in baseball that's had many injuries, well . . . it takes time to get it right."

The question the Lerners and Kasten must answer is will their fan base accept another terrible season in 2009, with a small-market payroll of $55 million, despite the promise of a bunch of young prospects in the minors close to augmenting young stars Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge, Jesús Flores and several promising pitchers?

I say no.

The club needs to play the free agent hand this offseason, even with the risk of flaming out, as the Giants did signing pitcher Barry Zito for $126 million over seven years or the Cubs paying outfielder Kosuke Fukudome $48 million for four years. CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Manny Ramírez, Adam Dunn and Ben Sheets, among others, are out there.

The Lerners must decide if they want to sit at the table with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Mets for these guys and do they want Bowden playing their hand.

Time to get in the game, I say.

Farewell

Washington lost one of its true baseball heroes Wednesday when Mickey Vernon, 90, died in Media, Pa., from complications from a recent stroke. Vernon played 20 seasons in the major leagues, including two stints totaling 14 years with the Senators (1939-43, '46-48 and '50-55) and a 2 1/2 -year run as manager of the expansion Senators (1961-63).

He also played for Cleveland, Boston, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh in a career that spanned four decades, beginning in 1939 and ending in 1960, with two years of Navy service (1944-45).

Vernon was a seven-time American League all-star winning two batting titles (1946 and 1953) for the Senators with averages of .353 and .337. While Vernon was a fine hitter, he was equally distinguished as a left-handed first baseman, posting a .990 career fielding percentage on 21,256 chances that included participation in 2,044 double plays.

"He was the most graceful fielder and hitter I ever saw," said television talk show host Maury Povich, who served as a bat boy for the Senators in the 1950s. "He brought a wonderful tone -- on and off the field -- to the team and city. I still remember the first time he hit a home run over that right field wall at Griffith Stadium. It was such a gigantic wall."

Vernon was a favorite of Povich's father, the late Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich, whose writings suggested he would have been supportive of Vernon's upcoming candidacy to election to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.

"He was the best first baseman I ever saw," declared Arnold Haft, 89, another longtime Washington baseball fan who played minor league baseball in the 1940s before becoming an NBA official.

· Economic Sports Tidbit: If I were looking to fix Wall Street and the country's money crisis, I'd bypass these congressional windbags and call NBA "Redeem Teamers" LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and their mates, plus Shaq, Gilbert and their agents. As Jerry Maguire would say: "They are making the quan."

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