It was a shirt-sleeve Fourth of July in D.C. Stadium 13 years ago, just the sort of baseball day that was so routine then and so extinct now.
As the great world measures drama, it was a small play in a small game; it was, to be exact, a foul pop-up in the eighth inning of a one-run game between the fifth-place New York Yankees and the 10th-place Washington Senators.
Yet perhaps Jim French was the perfect Nat to freeze time, to capture in a gallant, ridiculous instant all that a bad ballplayer on a bad team could mean to a great city.
French, all 5 feet 8 of him, was a battler, a gutbuster; his teammates called him Scrapiron for his grit and Weasel for the way his eyes looked in the morning after whatever they'd cooked up the night before.
As befits a career .196 hitter, French pursued the high pop as though it were a vial of secret antidote and he'd just swallowed the poison. Even though the Senators led, 3-2, even though there were Yankees on second and third base with one out, even though the game was on the line, it wasn't necessary to do what French did.
Actually, nothing would have been worth what French did. After all, turning yourself inside out while simultaneously trying to eat dirt and break your spine is hard work. To be candid, it was a routine play; French elevated it to greatness by a particularly Natlike knack for transcendental game incompetence.
"I butchered it," said French, now an option trader on the San Francisco stock exchange, this week. "The ball curled back on me and suddenly I realized I'd overrun it, so I just dove and stuck out my glove."
And, at the very moment of disgrace, the ball, by a breezy dispensation, droppped squarely into the center of his glove.
So, there French remains, captured in one of the most memorable Senator photographs from three score years and 10 in the American League. Naturally, he was knocked dizzy, had to stagger to his feet, and only by a characteristic act of ornery courage was able to keep the tying run at third.
Uncharacteristically, the Senators went on to win as outfielder Ed Stroud robbed someone named Mickey Mantle of a potential game-winning hit.
The next day, with typical Yankee magnanimity, New York Manager Ralph Houk greeted French by saying, "Misplayed the damn ball and got your picture all over the newspapers."
What can such a play, obscure when it happened and now not even a mote in history's eye, possibly mean?
For that, we must look at the faces in Ellsworth Davis' picture. There in the front rows are a half-dozen children who fairly represent the span of ages from 6 to 16. In their hands, they have the usual trinkets and appendages -- a boy with a scorecard and silly hat, a girl with binoculars and sports section. However, on their faces they have -- taken as a group -- what could be called a sense of riveted wonder.
At that moment, they are being offered a lifetime gift: baseball.
They may not value it or accept it, but one of their very few collective national mythologies has been made available to them in its most heart-stopping form. Jim French has just turned a foul pop-up into the Battle of Samothrace.
Washington still has those same children, but they no longer have Jim French, an endearingly bad .196 ballplayer on their very own belovedly bad last-place team.
Baseball at its very worst is a hang-on scrub like French butchering a simple play in a meaningless game between two goin'-nowhere teams on a sweltering midsummer day in mugggy Washington. And, as the photo tells us better than any thousand words, baseball at its worst can make you jump to your feet, drop your jaw in delight and remember vividly for years.
It can, in other words, make you a lifelong fan of the old home team.
These days, we are told, Washington no longer has a "baseball problem," That is to say, baseball no longer considers that it has a problem called Washington.
Commissioner Kuhn reconfirmed this week that his "position" on this decade-old, long-dead "issue" has not changed. The answer for Washington, both now and in the foreseeable future, is something called the Baltimore Orioles. Washingtonians are advised to think of the Birds as a regional franchise. Folks hereabouts are to hope that, someday, the Orioles' Washington-based owner Edward Bennett Williams will find a way to finagle taxpayers somewhere into building him a new, modern stadium that, in Kuhn's words, "is closer to Washington."
All this is the most transparent charade.
Baseball has been gone for 10 years and it isn't coming back any time soon.Maybe not ever.
However, wishing a problem away or decreeing that it no longer exists does not solve it.
Anyone who thinks that the Baltimore Orioles are, in any significant sense, Washington's home team is daft.
The Orioles are an indigenous, valuable part of Baltimore's culture and community. To deny that, chip away at it, or demean it, is tawdry. The Birds have scarcely more connection with Washington than they do with Reading, Pa. And Washington, for its part, has no more valid link with the Orioles than it does with the Red Sox or Padres.
If the Orioles are worth following or fancying, it is on their own merits, just as we might devote our interest to a particularly fine or fascinating team from Cincinnati. Many Washingtonians like the Orioles because the Orioles, for the moment, are eminently worth liking. Some Washington baseball fans aare dizzy over the Orioles, also a defensible reaction.
However, inhabitants of the capital also can be found who dote on the Yankees or Phillies. In all these cases, we are talking about adoption from afar. The Washingtonian who treks to Memorial Statium for a big series is little different from the Yankee fanatic who already has his tickets for some vital June showdown. Only the travel time is different.
The Orioles can proselytize with increased radio and TV broadcasting; more power to them. But they aren't the home team. They are a stopgap measure.
The home team, you see, is Jim French.
If French were, today, the Baltimore catcher and the Birds were in last place, would anyone pretend that Washington gave a fig for the Orioles, or coveted them in the least? Of course not. The Orioles are Washington's surrogate team only as long as they are running hot, as long as, by their play and their personalities, they are worth our time.
The home team is the bunch that we follow stubbornly when they are terrible, cheer for when they are dull, follow with an almost irrational affection from the time we are no older than that smallest child in that front row beaming at the spetacle that has fallen into his lap.
To the adult in us, curious about the world and its ways, a World Series in Baltimore may be of vastly greater interest than a drab Senator double-header in August. That is sport on a broad canvas, worthy of our best thought.
But, the child in us -- that is to say the fan in us -- cannot be fooled by a commissioner or a silver-tongued owner. The Baltimore Orioles, for all their admirable excellence, may find a place in our heads, but not in the innermost chamber of our fan's heart. They are not Washington's home team. Not by a long shot. And not any time soon.