Baseball, like the pursuit of happiness, is an inalienable right. Someday, when they write the story of the rise and fall of these United States, they'll rue the day they took baseball away from Washington.
It has been 10 years. Washington has no team. But it has teams: Little League teams and recreational league teams, high school, college and pickup teams, as well as the Dukes. They play at elementary schools where the backstops have holes in them, and at colleges where the backstops have balls stuck in them. But mostly, they play in a vacuum.
There were 30,000 people rolling eggs on the South Lawn of the White House last week. Bullwinkle was flying high, 75 feet up. Balloons the color of Easter eggs dotted the sky. Across the street, on the Ellipse, George Washington and Howard were playing a doubleheader. "Biggest crowd in the history of college baseball," a guy said.
Two boys, egg roll refugees, were sitting by the backstop, watching. "Soccer," they said, "it's the greatest sport in the world."
Scott Schober of Woodbridge, Va., is 8 years old and easy to like. He has never been to a major league game. He heard of the Senators once. He thinks it would be nice to have a team. "Is there a home run in baseball?" he asked, innocently. Yes, he was told.
Baseball is no longer a part of Washington's consciousness. "A lot of people just forget," said Chris Shebby, who pitches for the O'Connell High School junior varsity.
Some don't forget.
Chuck Hinton, the last .300 hitter for the Senators, coaches at Howard University these days. He insisted, "Washington hasn't given up on baseball." But in the inner city, he admitted, it's hard to find fields, and it's hard to find funds. Baseball has been exiled to the suburbs--there are some good ballplayers in Northern Virginia, coaches say.
But something has been severed; something has been lost. "Baseball isn't spoken here enough," said Dick Bosman, the former Senator pitcher who coaches O'Connell's junior varsity. All you have to do is listen to his players and their opponents. Their chatter betrays them. "Base rap, base rap." "Lotta shot, now bud, lotta shot." "Go deep" means nothing to most of them. They do not understand what it means to "dial nine" (homer over the right-field wall).
Michael Lovelace, 11, plays for Naval Air in the McLean Little League. "It's the only sport I'll play," he said. "I tried all the others, but there's too much running."
He does not collect baseball cards. "It's just a waste of money," he said. "You just look at them for an hour and put 'em on a shelf. I'm not going to waste my money."
That's not the way it was when you had a team, and you followed your team, and you went out and pretended you played for your team. Life had a kind of coherence then.
Kurt Kaull, a basketball guard for Georgetown in the winter, is a shortstop for the Hoyas in the spring. "I come from Chicago. We have two major league teams. It gives you something to identify with," he said. "My little brother and I would go and play one team against the other against the garage door. One summer, I hit 150 home runs. . . As you get older, you stop identifying, you stop getting stars in your eyes."
Joe Niciforo, a designated hitter whose designated dream is playing in the major leagues, wasn't so sure. He grew up in Brooklyn, where transistors pressed against an ear become part of the anatomy every fall.
"You lived it every day," he said. "All day we talked about baseball, and at night, all we did was watch baseball, and if we went out to a game we went three hours early to see b.p. (batting practice). Either we were watching it, or talking it, or playing it, or imitating those guys 'cause they were the best in the world."
Ken Kelly, who used to be a catcher at Dartmouth, is the coach at Georgetown. Last year, his team won 20 games for the first time since 1949. Baseball, he says, "is something to be handed down through the culture. We've lost that continuum. There's no major league team.
"You can talk about the glory of major league sports and how beautiful the game is. But you've got to take a kid to Baltimore, to the pregame, when you can walk down to the first row and look at Eddie Murray 10 feet away. That kid is going to turn around and smile. That's it baby, you want to be a ballplayer. We don't have that here. A father has got to show a kid how to love the game. It's like a rite of passage to be passed on from generation to generation."
It still happens, of course. Seiji Oguro's father, who used to pitch for his company team in Japan, taught him how to throw when he was 5 years old. Seiji is 10 now. They still play catch on weekends. Now, Seiji pitches for Naval Air in the McLean Little League.
In Japan, he played in a soccer league. His heroes were Mr. Oh and Mr. Kobayashi, the pitching ace of the Hanshin Tigers. Seiji has never played little league baseball before.
His coaches find this hard to believe. Seiji, you see, is a natural. He stands on the mound, in his blue warm-up suit, peering out from underneath a blue cap.
The last of the cherry blossoms flicker in the batter's eyes. Seiji doesn't throw very hard, but he throws very well. A kid like that, with a fluid, natural motion at age 10, is "one in 500, maybe one in a thousand," said Bob Malan, one of his coaches. "His follow-through is perfect. He's balanced when he's finished. His feet are spread apart and parallel to his shoulders . . . Plus he reaches back."
In a 10-year-old's motion, you can see the perfection of the game, and in a jayvee game, you can see its possibilities and its traditions. A coach gives a kid a chaw and a warning: "Not too much, I don't want you to get a buzz."
O'Connell was playing at St. John's. The game was close and tense. O'Connell's coaches thought some of their players were not enough in the game. Then one of their players hit a ball that somehow found its way into a hole in the shortstop's pants.
A run scored, the shortstop called time. The tension broke, the spectators broke up. O'Connell went on to win, 8-2. Chris Shebby had 18 strikeouts. Later, the coaches sat in a school bus in the twilight talking about how to teach kids to care.
"I don't see a lot of good baseball players these days," Bosman said, although he has some "super kids" on his team. "Why? They don't play. When I grew up, I got hell because I was always throwing apples at cars. We took b.p. with apples. We were always throwing stuff. These kids, the only time they play is when they're out here with us. How can you become a good player when the televison set's always on, and they're always playing Intellivision games?"
Bosman was the last man to start a game for the Senators at RFK Stadium on Sept. 30, 1971. "Funny how time dims things," he said. "It was an honor to be able to pitch, but there was no way I could have pitched well because of the emotion . . . Here was a game that meant it was all over."
He gave up five runs and eight hits in five innings, including three home runs. "It was a chaotic night," he said. "I had to go out to the bullpen to warm up. I had tears in my eyes."
The Senators eventually forfeited. Washington lost.