- The Washington Times - Monday, October 11, 2004

(This column first appeared in The Washington Times in a slightly different form Dec. 20, 1999.)

Suddenly, an adolescent fan dashed onto the field and began shaking hands with players. He slid into second base, arose and headed for the outfield with security personnel in pursuit.

Now dozens of spectators, mostly young, overran the field. They were followed by hundreds of others, then thousands. The players retreated to the dugouts and watched as the invaders tore up the bases, ripped out handfuls of grass and scooped up dirt.

It was hopeless. After a short wait, the umpires were forced to award the Yankees a 9-0 forfeit victory — the first in the major leagues in 17 years. No way would this game ever be completed.

The date was Sept.30, 1971, at RFK Stadium. The game was finished. So was the season. And so was major league baseball in the nation’s capital for 33 desolate summers.

A few days later, the old Washington Star ran this headline: Chances for baseball virtually nil in ‘72. It was a good guess, a very good guess. And nil, too, for ‘82, ‘92, ‘02 … until we were delivered two weeks ago.

Just as agonizing as the lack of the national pastime in the nation’s capital were the rumors that seemed to raise our hopes for the sole purpose of dashing them.

The Padres were set to move here in 1973 — “We have a ball team,” Giant Food president Joseph Danzansky announced at a triumphant press conference — but then owner Ray Kroc stepped in with his McDonald’s bankroll to keep them in San Diego.

The Pirates were coming. The Astros. The Whoevers. Or baseball would deign to dump an expansion franchise in our laps. It was easy to lose track. And hope.

Of course, the Orioles were playing 35 miles up the road, winning games and pennants and seducing us to spend our baseball bucks at first Memorial Stadium and then Camden Yards. Where was it written that Washington, D.C., the most powerful and important city on the planet, need be jealous of Baltimore?

Baltimore?

Balmer?

But for nearly three decades, we had only three choices. We could become Orioles fans. We could leave a light in the window and wait for our team to appear. Or we could forget about baseball.

We knew at the time that the Senators’ last game was special. We just didn’t know how long it would remain special.

Anyone who was at RFK or in electronic attendance that muggy night remembers two things: the surreal ending and Frank Howard’s home run.

Howard, a k a “Hondo” and “the Gentle Giant,” was special by himself. The expansion Senators were lousy for all but one of their 11 seasons, but Howard gave us a hero to love. In D.C., only Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen could match his appeal. Big Frank hit home runs, lots of home runs — 136 of them from 1968 through 1970. He was slowing down a little in ‘71 at the age of 35, but his 26 dingers and 83 ribbies were nothing to be ashamed of. And who cared if he couldn’t run the bases, cover ground in left field or throw out anybody with two legs? He was a mighty slugger — a breed that has captivated fans from Casey to Bonds — and that was enough.

On the final night, everybody wanted Hondo to hit one as sort of a fitting epitaph. Apparently that included Mike Kekich, the Yankees pitcher, who became infamous the following year when he and teammate Fritz Peterson divorced their wives and married each other’s ex-spouses.

In the sixth inning, Kekich threw a medium fastball over the heart of the plate that Howard appreciatively blasted off the left-field wall above the visitors’ bullpen. It ignited a four-run rally that tied the game 5-5, and understandable bedlam ensued.

Howard came out for a couple of curtain calls, blew kisses to the fans and later said, “This is Utopia. This is the greatest thrill of my life. Can you imagine a greater thrill than that?” (I certainly couldn’t for 24 years, until I saw Cal Ripken hit a homer in the game when he broke Lou Gehrig’s record.)

After Kekich was knocked out during the Senators’ big rally, a reporter for the Washington Star ventured down to the Yankees’ clubhouse on a hunch. The door was open and unguarded, normally unprecedented during games, and Kekich sat alone in front of his locker. The intruder asked point-blank if he had grooved the pitch to Howard.

“C’mon, man, you’re not gonna ask me that, are you?” Kekich replied, grinning.

Sure I was, why not?

“Well … let’s just say I wasn’t trying too hard to get him out.”

Howard himself had no doubts.

“Next time up, I told the catcher [Thurman Munson] to thank Mike for the gift,” Hondo told reporters after the game. “All I know is, he gave me a pitch I could hit.”

Ahead for the Senators the following season would be a permanent trip to Arlington, Texas, and transmogrification into the Texas Rangers. Hall of Famer Ted Williams had worked wonders with the sad-sack Senators his first season as manager in 1969, snorting and exhorting them to an 86-76 record as every hitter on the team seemed to improve his average 30 points. But in 1970, the magic vanished, and the Senators were just another bad ballclub.

A disastrous trade with the Tigers in which Washington surrendered third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and shortstop Ed Brinkman for washed-up former 31-game winner Denny McLain and change made the ‘71 team even worse at 63-96 as attendance and interest plummeted.

Owner Bob Short, a Minnesota pol and wheeler-dealer who cared not a whit for Washington, was more than receptive when Texas baseball representatives came calling, hat in hand. Short, the coward, made no more visits to RFK in 1971. But as he watched his Rangers play at Memorial Stadium, the following season, a Capitol Hill bartender called Baseball Bill poured one for every Washington fan past and present — he dumped a cup of beer over Short’s head.

On the night of the final game, a sign reading “Bob Short Fan Club” hung from the mezzanine — below a completely empty section. A 14-year-old boy wept as he lugged a Styrofoam dummy of Short around RFK. That boy would be 47 now — and finally he will get to see another major league game in Washington.

If, after all the summers of our discontent, he still cares.

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