When the hometown teams are losers, you don't get spoiled. You're forced to take the game and its players, unadorned in defeat, for what they are -- neither heroes nor villains, just men attempting a difficult task, and often failing.
This may be germane because, at the moment, Washington has the earmarks of a spoiled sports town.
Lifelong Washingtonians can spot the symptoms. For those who lived here in the '50s and '60s, the first distinction to be learned was the difference between a front-runner and a fan. When, of necessity, you must study the fortunes of bad teams, it forces you to appreciate the game, see it clearly, before concerning yourself with who wins. Defeats produce good spectators, not just enthusiastic fans.
For generations here, folks followed the exploits of lovable miscreants like the Redskins' "papoose backfield" of Jim Podoley and Don Bossler in the late, losing 1950s; or double-play combinations like Herb Plews and Jose Valdivielso of the last-place Senators; or long-forgotten pituitary cases who played for the defunct basketball Tapers at Uline Arena.
But, gradually, in the '70s, Washington acquired a taste for athletic caviar, a taste that is hard to break when bad times come, as they are coming now.
First, the Redskins were transformed. From '56 through '70, they played at a .377 pace; from '71 through '79, it was .659. The jet set discovered jocks. Then, the snowball started. The Capital Centre became a showplace and the Bullets a showpiece.
Led by Lefty Driesell at Maryland, Washington college basketball went from being a void to one of the nation's meccas. Maryland football dominated the ACC as the Terps went to seven bowls. Howard's soccer team was a national dynasty.
New teams, new leagues, new glamor events couldn't keep their hands off Washington. Everything from the NASL to box lacrosse took its shot. Once, Washington had no pro tennis tournament; now, it has three. The PGA Tour brought the Kemper Open to Congressional last year.
The boom was pervasive. Washington high school basketball blue-chippers were the nation's envy; the Capital Classic became the national flesh-peddlers' heaven. Hold an Olympics and a homegrown Melissa Belote or Sugar Ray Leonard would surface with gold.
Even obscure college baseball went from nonexistent to powerful. The atmosphere was rife with the words "big time." Colleges like Catholic in basketball and Howard in football, carried away by the area-wide enthusiasm, sadly overextended themselves and got burned by the limelight game.
Just a year ago, the wave was at, or near, its crest. A bumper sticker say, "Washington is for Winners," would not have been out of place, as long as you stipulated that you were talking about games, not politics.
At that time -- ah, that time -- the Redskins were 10-5 and seemed on the verge of the playoffs again. The Bullets were coming off consecutive seasons in which they had been NBA champs, then runners-up. The Dips were about to sign Johan Cruyff, merely the best soccer player on earth. And the Orioles, the city's baseball surrogate, had been to the Series. The panoply seemed endless.
Georgetown and Maryland were in the basketball top 20 while quality programs like George Washington and American University had to beg for attention. Glance south and there was 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson. The Terp footballers were back in a bowl. And so on. Even the top high school basketball prospect -- 7-foot Earl Jones -- moved to D. C.Obviously, he knew where the action was. Even the ridiculous Caps had learned to stay upright on their skates.
Who would have guessed at Christmas '79 that by Christmas '80 we would have sent one beloved coach of the year, Dick Motta to Dallas and that another, Jack Pardee, would be facing the prospect of being forced out of his job? Or that the Dips, after drawing a crowd of more than 53,000 at RFK for the Cosmos, would be defunct?
Now, the Redskins are in the same sort of internecine chaos that afflicted the Bullets last spring. The starkest appraisal of Washington franchises at the moment is a matter of noting that the Caps not only have the best record, but perhaps the best future, too.
Elsewhere, the Orioles missed the playoffs, the Terps' day has passed as the ACC's football power and several college basketball programs have slipped a notch. When something goes right, like Leonard beating Roberto Duran, all everybody does is bellyache.
One of the strangest phenomena, or perhaps coincidences, in sports is the way entire cities seem to go through cycles. As typically weird evidence, look at Philadelphia, long a home of wretched teams. The Phillies won the Series and right now the Eagles, 76ers and Flyers lead the NFL, NBA and NHL, respectively.
The interesting point, however, is not the cycles themselves but how people react to them. Once great expectations have become ingrained, they have a way of overrriding good judgment. For instance, last weekend, impatient Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke blurted that, "Washington deserves a football team that is 11-5 or 10-6, at the least, to represent it properly."
Obviously, the 10,000 no-shows for Saturday's Redskins-Giants game were making a similar statement about the sort of team to which they had grown accustomed. Two 4-10 squads simply weren't worth watching, even with a ticket in hand.
The ideal example of how Washington has gradually become spoiled -- addicted to victory, not the game itself -- is the public reaction in the last year to two coaches -- Motta and Pardee -- and to two players, John Riggins and Bob Dandridge.
Pro sports do not offer men more estimable than Motta and Pardee. Yet, in the blink, of an eye, their jobs were in jeopardy after molding teams that had more success than any Washington pro franchise of the '50s and '60s combined. Has there been any grandswell in their defense, to plead for patience or a proper sense of appreciation and decency? Are you kidding? Of course not. They're losing, so they must be losers.
But what about Riggins and Dandridge, two stars about whom the kindest thing that can be said is that they are prototypes of the hermetically self-centered Me Generation athletes?
Their cases are complicated enough for textbooks, but their similarity is simple and sad. Both were so insulted by $250,000 to $300,000 salaries that they sulked, made threats and pulled patent power plays to try to lever cash out of their clubs even if it meant damaging the whole franchise.
How did Washington, so silent as Motta and Pardee were walking the plank, react to Riggins and Dandridge? By pleading with them to pretty-please come back.
Isn't it probable that Washington would gladly kiss and make up with Riggins and Dandridge if they showed up tomorrow healthy and willing to play? Wouldn't the town let bygones be bygones for the sake of a few more victories?
Perhaps that is the bonus one gets from learning about sports by watching shortstops like Valdivielso and 5-foot-7 quarterbacks like Eddie LeBaron. Winning is a fine goal but, at least in games, it is not an essential end. If a taste for victory means discarding the likes of Motta and Pardee, while kowtowing to Riggins and Dandridge, is it worth the price?