April is indeed "the cruellest month," especially in Washington. Especially this year. Even though a Washingtonian, Edward Bennett Williams, bought a baseball team, that team is still the Baltimore Orioles. All we have is nostagia.
After all, the Senators were as consistent as the most-game-winning Orioles -- except in reverse. So what if they couldn't chew tobacco and run bases at the same time? Maybe they were losers, but they were our losers.
Sometimes, in fact, there was the thrill of victory, usually on opening day when the Nats (short for Nationals, but appropriate for a team that played like harmless but bothersome bugs), buoyed by a large crowd and the gaze of the president, often looked like pennant contenders. Then there was the agony of defeat, usually in the 150 or so games that followed.
Back then, the roster resembled a roll call at the Organization of American States, and Batista's Cuba was an excellent source of bargain-basement players for a team that even scouted an erratic pitcher named Fidel Castro. A few couldn't speak English, a fact that helped management during contract talks, but not on the field. In a 1955 game, after pinch runner Pedro Ramos reached third base on an error, manager Charlie Dressen had to get a pinch runner for his pinch runner because the Cuban didn't understand "squeeze bunt." By opening day 1958, when he beat the Bosox 5 to 2 (the Nats finished last that year too), Ramos had learned English. When a reporter asked about his only mistake of the day, a gopher ball to Jackie Jensen, Ramos replied, "Eet's part of the game. If I know Jensen would hit homer, I would have thrown the ball over the stands."
The Nats' manager always had an assortment of strange problems. Pitcher Hal Woodeshick had no difficulty finding the plate, but when a ball was hit back to him, he could not come within two feet of throwing a runner out at first. Usually the ball sailed into the home dugout while fellow players marveled at how Woodeshick had put excitement back into the tap to the mound. Willie Tasby's nemesis was lightning. As an ominous cloud hovered over the stadium one afternoon, the fidgety outfielder kept edging in toward second base, ever closer to the safety of the dugout. The last out of the inning brought a merciful end to the most shallowly stationed center fielder in history.
Certain games linger in the memory. The Senators couldn't seem to find a second baseman who could both hit and field. Once Herb Plews, a decent batter but a sieve at second base, found himself in the field guarding a slim lead, and in the top of the ninth his two errors allowed the opposition to forge ahead. When Plews came to bat in the bottom of the inning with runners in scoring position, the home fans, imbued with either a sense of humanity or too much beer, gave him a standing ovation. Plews lined a game-winning hit and his teammates mobbed him. It didn't matter that the game would have ended satisfactorily 20 minutes earlier had Herb not been such a rotten fielder or that the Nats, in spite of their win, were still buried in the cellar; it was the little moral victories that counted back then.
In 1961, the "New Nats," an expansion club, replaced the Calvin Griffith team that had deserted to the Twin Cities (some suggested that the "TC" on the Twins' caps stood for "turncoats"). The spunky new club won Washington's heart on a balmy weekend in May, when Griffith's Minnesota Twins made their first visit to their old home and proved that Thomas Wolfe was right. The Senators swept the series and sports writer Shirley Povich commented that the only thing troubling the large stadium crowd was the possibility of another franchise shift that would bring the Twins back.
The new club followed in the carefully guarded tradition of miserable trades. Most of the Senators' deals made other teams into pennant contenders, while a talented ballplayer became error prone and lost his battling eye the minute he donned a Senators' uniform. Perhaps the worst trade in the history of baseball was negotiated by the infamous -- to Washingtonians -- Bob Short, the man who later moved the Nats to Texas. It's painful to recall how Short dealt off his best young pitcher and the entire left half of his starting infield for Denny McLain. McLain lost 22 games in his first and only year with the Nats, while former Senator Joe Coleman became an instand 20-game winner with Detroit.
Maybe it's that kind of "curse" that Ed Williams fears. Maybe it would take a presidential decree to order a baseball club to Washington. Come to think of it, that might not be so bad for President Carter -- at least it would insure that Ronald Reagan would get absolutely no votes in this city. And if he won reelection, Carter would improve relations with Cuba next year by asking Fidel Castro to pitch the Nats' opening game. Castro couldn't be any worse than Denny McLain.