We're baaaaad, and when the subject is sporting cities, that's not good.
How bad? Mets bad. Philadelphia early-'70s bad. Enough to get hugs and kisses from just about every team that comes to town, but very little respect. Bad enough that a major athletic commodity -- hope -- isn't selling. Bad enough that the only area-wide tingle is generated by three freshmen at Georgetown.
But we've been worse.
The sad truth is that for more than two generations, Washington has been awful more often than excellent. We've been an athletic Lourdes, where opponents have come to get well; we've been a ghost town, what remains when owners sense an untapped mother lode, realize they were wrong and then pull up stakes and leave.
We've been Whipped and Dipped in soccer, Shorted and Griffithed in baseball. Does anybody remember a pro hockey team called the Lions? In pro basketball, Washington was Eastern Division champion in 1949, took the George Mikan Lakers to six games in the championship series -- and became an asterisk two years later.
"Disbanded Jan. 9," it says in the '51 National Basketball Association record section, after a 10-25 start.
A 10-25 start seems about right for the Bullets this season. The Capitals might be better than ever and still not make the playoffs, for the eighth year of their eight-year life, a period in which they were an incredible 200 games under .500 before last night's action against Buffalo.
There are about half a dozen genuinely dreadful teams in the National Football League at the moment, and the injury-riddled Redskins are among them. The football Terrapins might not break even for the first time in a decade; the basketball Terrapins might not be much better than North Carolina's Blue Team.
Still, we do have Sugar Ray Leonard to beat the hell out of anyone who brays that this beltway badness somehow makes us inferior. And if Detroit or Cleveland starts getting uppity, Ray can always buy them.
Very often, a town gets myopic at times such as these, gets to feeling too low, that its teams are the worst in history and that no area ever has experienced such an athletic drought. Some droplets of perspective are in order.
The Bullets have won just one NBA championship, but that is one more than any other city except Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, New York, Milwaukee or Philadelphia in the last quarter-century. More NFL teams have not been to the Super Bowl than have. The Redskins have. Jerry Claiborne's and Lefty Driesell's records are among the best in their profession.
Think we're bad? In 1972, Philadelphia endured the 59-97 Phillies, the 2-11-1 Eagles and the 9-73 Sixers. In Chicago last year, the Cubs were 64-98, the White Sox 70-90, the Black Hawks 31-33-16 and the Bears 7-9.
For sustained awfulness, few cities could match mid-'70s Atlanta. The Braves lost 94, 92 and 101 games in '75, '76 and '77; the Hawks were 29-53, 31-51 and 41-41 in that period; the Falcons had back-to-back 4-10 seasons in '75 and '76.
Front-runners in New York were crying in '66, when the Mets were 61-101, the Yankees 70-89 and the Knicks 36-45. The City of Champs, Pittsburgh, had been the City of Chumps, the athletic pits, for ever so long before its teams won the national collegiate football championship once, the World Series twice and the Super Bowl four times in the '70s.
If Washington in the early '80s hardly has been athletic heaven, it had to have been worse in 1960. There were no National Hockey League or NBA teams, the Redskins were 1-9-2, and the sensationally sad Senators beat it out of town, to Minnesota.
It's a head-jolting fact that every pro team in Washington in the last four decades, with the exception of the Redskins, has folded or moved for lack of support. Or what its owners considered nonsupport.
"I feel sorry for the sports fans of Washington," said publicist and pulse-taker Charlie Brotman. "They deserve better. And I'm one of 'em. I should be wearing black for the rest of my life, just by association (with the Senators and Whips). We don't just lose games and teams; we lose entire leagues."
Part of why the area probably will be less than ordinary in the early '80s is that it was quite good in the mid- and late '70s. With their drafts, the fortunes of pro basketball and football teams are supposed to be cyclical. Eight different teams have won NBA titles in the last 11 years; the Steelers were the worst NFL team at the end of the '60s and the best at the end of the '70s.
Which should provide a flicker of optimism for area fans. Be bad now, be bold and brilliant in the draft, and be mean on the field and the court by mid-decade. At Maryland, Driesell might only be one great player away from the top 20 again -- and that fellow's name might be Billy Thompson, a New Jersey senior arguably the best prospect in the country.
Thoughtful local sufferers realize that nirvana is not just around the corner, that somebody else, not us, will reap the rewards from our teams being bad. The NFL Rams and NBA Pistons are smiling and wishing us the worst, for they own the rights to the opening-round Redskins' and Bullets' draft choices, which could include players such as Marcus Allen and Ralph Sampson.
These deals were made in good faith, although the faithful of both teams may well be foaming with frustration as the reality of being both helpless and hopeless sharpens. Three years ago, the Bullets gambled that giving their No. 1 choice in '82 for Kevin Porter would give them the final boost for one more championship surge.
The gamble did not succeed; Porter, injured, will play no more this season.
Although other factors were involved, the Redskins this year swapped their first-round choice in '82 for the chance to draft a guard available after 68 selections, Russ Grimm. He might be wonderful someday, an all-pro for years and years. Right now, the price seems far too high.
We're presuming quite a lot here, tripping close to being unfair since the Capitals' season is only six games old, Maryland and Redskin football only about half finished, and the Bullets and Maryland basketball not even started. Maybe Gary and Jerry, Gene, Joe and the Lefthander can pull a miracle out of their clipboards.
We'd love that; we don't expect it.