To be able to go to a baseball game at RFK any summer night, that would be living.
Seeing the old-timers at the Cracker Jack Classic at the stadium Monday was nostalgic and fun. But it made me anxious, too, for more, for the prize in the candy, for something to hold on to now that the old boys' show is over. I came home wanting more than ever a major league team here in Washington.
Baseball is reassuring in its familiarity, exciting in its uncertainty.
The mere act of going to a baseball game, the anticipation, can lift the spirit because one is approaching a beginning, a new day, a new game, and beginnings can be exciting. Part of a game can be what happens in the mind or in conversation with a companion, in a car or on the Metro, on the way to the park. The speculation: Do you think Killebrew will hit one tonight?
The quiet time during batting practice, or even before, sitting in a clubhouse or near-empty stands, offers moments when past and future can be merged, when, say, hitters' recent performances can be weighed against those of that night's opposing pitcher, when a joyous outcome can be imagined. A manager, searching for tendencies and trends, can use the time to check his file cards.
With a one-night stand, like the old-timers game, no season of statistics is available to draw on. Comparisons Monday night at the stadium tended toward the current state of baseball here, the gnawing void, versus Washington's baseball past, grown more distant than most could have dreamed when Robert Short took the Senators to Texas. He bought the team in 1969, and almost immediately threatened to leave. He might have used a moving van in the middle of the night, but he was more clever.
A man who dates even to the Senators of Griffith Stadium stood among RFK's orange seats Monday afternoon to get an early look at the temporary baseball field, a diamond for one night only. "Well, it looks familiar," he said, wistfully. He put it this way: "They moved two teams out from under me."
Downstairs, the Senators' old clubhouse stirred again, and American League legends or near-ones occupied almost every locker. Eddie Yost, "The Walking Man" who played 829 straight games for the Senators, was seated next to Boston's Johnny Pesky, who spit tobacco in a shoe box. Big Boog Powell, Lite beer salesman, sat at a corner locker. Al Kaline, still looking trim, had another corner. Joe DiMaggio was between Whitey Ford and Harvey Kuenn. A parade of pitching favorites passed by: Wynn, Tiant, Pascual, Feller. The Robinsons, Brooks and Frank, walked in, over together from Baltimore.
Alone in the middle of the room, Minnie Minoso, the White Sox star who played for the Senators in 1963, stuck a blue button to his uniform shirt: "Baseball in '87." It must be something he hopes for, cares about, because nobody told him to do it.
The place was a living, breathing Cooperstown.
Yet, being in there brought flashbacks of old Senators last seen at those lockers -- Frank Howard, Toby Harrah, Paul Casanova. And the thought: This room should be occupied every summer night by a new Senators team, one called the Senators, too, because it's a name with history, not all of it bad.
The Killebrew-led club won the pennant in '65, but Calvin Griffith had moved it to Minnesota by then.
Washington's presidential opener used to be unique. The blue-eyed Yost, pulling on his AL uniform, remembers one, when the Senators led the Yankees by one run with two out in the top of the ninth and three on, Johnny Lindell at bat. Yost remembers this sweet instant in his baseball life because Lindell swung and the ball shot off the bat on a line, high above Yost's head. "I jumped way up in the air to my left, and ended the ball game."
Early at the park, one can lean over a rail and get an autograph, talk to a player. It was something like that Monday night, as a rope was strung across the outfield and people streamed in to meet the old-timers. Some stood 12 deep. Ernie Banks -- who else has quite that much enthusiasm? -- was first out to greet fans. "Hey, Ernie, gonna play two tonight?"
"Three," came the reply, with a cackle.
Kuenn and Ralph Kiner, followed by Tony Oliva, and Bobby Doerr, and Willie Stargell -- "Hey, Pops" -- and a score more all came to the rope. Brooks Robinson signs left-handed, which surprised some. Banks held a baby.
Yet almost every player needn't be a hall of famer to make people happy. A team of mere mortals would do, if the team played here every day. Thinking back years, the sight of a small boy getting an autograph from a favorite Senator came to mind. He was pleased enough to meet . . . Wayne Terwilliger. Terwilliger will never make Cooperstown, but he was "The Twig," and that was enough.
Monday night, the man in the powder-blue sport coat doing interviews behind the batting cage was Bob Wolff, who used to broadcast the games. It was like years ago, when he did "Dugout Chatter" on Channel 5 and gave away Countess Mara neckties to his guests. Among others the other night, he chatted with DiMaggio.
One looked on and said to himself, Enough. A team here is overdue.
A sign hung on the facing of the stadium also said it: "D.C. Desperately Seeking Baseball."
If there was one player who, for me, brought the past to the present with a crack of a bat, it was Willie McCovey, ex-Giant. A giant literally, still powerful-looking, he hit the ball high and far in batting practice, just as he did in the 1969 All-Star Game here, when he homered twice. Monday night in the cage, he hit the ball out the exit door in right field.
Frank Robinson looked to be the modern player he was, too. On his left hand he wore a batting glove. His red socks were cut high, and, best of all, he could still hit.
After batting practice came the introductions, a roll call to end baseball roll calls.
And yet, satisfying as it was to see Mr. Cub and all the aging heroes, even Emil Verban wearing his antique glove, thoughts of a still hazy future recurred: to have, maybe, the current Cubs coming into town for a series, to play, at long last, games that count in the standings, to see a new edition of the Senators, maybe even watch a legend grow here in Washington.
I came home with memories, and a hope.