- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 1, 2005

It is generally agreed Lincoln saved the Union. Some agree the Irish saved civilization. Few agree I ever saved any money. But all can agree that the Washington Nationals saved the City of Washington.

As their inaugural season wraps up and quivering, inconsolable fans face a bad and barren winter, I think it is time to take stock of what this team — this phenomenon — has meant to our nation’s capital.

Good triumphed over evil: A story needs good guys and bad guys, and we certainly had both in the Nationals’ gestation.

I shall set aside the good guys. Frankly, they’re too boring, to virtuous, too visionary, and too solid to help my article much. Mayor Anthony Williams, D.C. Councilmen Jack Evans and Vincent Orange, the Washington Baseball Club, Darrell Green, Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. I’ll skip over them because (a) their place in heaven is assured, and (b) I want to save column space for the main villain.

One small, retrograde man led the fight to keep baseball — baseball — out of the national capital: The regional Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos.

Regional? Yes. Next to his mortal, eternal sin of keeping baseball out of America’s s capital city, I believe his next greatest crime was trying to turn the Orioles into a regional team. Think for a moment, Yankees devotees — are you a fan of the Northeast Quadrant Yankees? Of course not.

Americans are not members of bland, corporate regions, but of flesh-and-blood towns and cities. Mr. Angelos even pulled the word “Baltimore” off their uniforms. I can not believe the hard-working people of Baltimore ever allowed this.

In my life, I have taken three things most seriously: my job as husband and father; my career in the Air Force and the private sector; my dedication to returning baseball to Washington.

In 1933, my father, Frank Cumberland, hit a grand slam against George Washington University’s Colonials. His father gave baseball to him, and he gave it to me. And I gave it to my three kids.

And a millionaire lawyer in Baltimore decided the Washington baseball tradition had to be destroyed. The circle had to be broken. The men of Washington must travel to Baltimore to show their sons the national game. The baseball-frenzied women of the District must crawl, forever, to Mr. Angelos.

Radio: I was in Ocean City, Md., July Fourth weekend, when the Nats swept the Cubs in Chicago. Certainly, I told my family, we could see these games on WGN. But no.

I was there again the last week of July as the Nats battled Atlanta. Certainly, I told them, we could see the Nationals on WTBS. But no. It was blacked out.

All these family moments were destroyed by the owner of the Baltimore Regionals. We ended up tracking these games by following the crawlers on ESPN and CNN; we had come to the outer limits of the absurd. We remembered the Wednesday night in June when we couldn’t see the Nats on TV, but caught the Baltimore Regionals twice — once live, once replayed (both losing). We flashed back to the Nats’ visit to San Francisco, when we had subscribed to Web-based MLB.TV to watch the game, only to learn Mr. Angelos had blacked that out too.

But here, again, despite the evil efforts of Charm City’s Pol Pot, poetry and justice shook hands and gave the people of Washington a thing of even greater beauty than cable: Dave Shea and Charlie Slowes on Nationals radio.

This is the finest baseball radio team I have ever heard. They seem to understand there is only one reason to play baseball, and to broadcast it: for fun. They concluded an April save by Chad Cordero with such an emphatic “He struck him out, he struck him out — the game… is… over” I thought perhaps Bobby Thompson had hit a home run. “Bang, zoom go the fireworks,” their game-ending sampling from Jackie Gleason, is the very definition of human joy, and in “a curly ‘W’ is in the books” they have trademarked Nationals wins for a generation.

One night, I heard them exclaim, “I can’t believe what I’ve seen.” (Once in a while they replay this clip as part of their pregame introduction. I urge you to hear it.) This statement is made with such authenticity, such you-are-there amazement, that the listener senses they have witnessed the face of God, the actual return of Babe Ruth to the diamond or the spontaneous combustion of the Florida Marlins.

Mr. Shea and Mr. Slowes are like primitive painters, capturing the sound-prints that will sustain Washington baseball for the next 100 years. Told we would not have a decent TV deal, we found Dave and Charlie instead. And Washington radio was saved.

Renewal and rebuilding: Complete the following declarative statement by adding just one word: “America .. .”

There are lots of great answers. “Cares,” “prays,” “wins,” and “works” are all good, but my favorite is “America builds.” Yet, for the longest time, it seemed our capital city had stopped building. Metro construction sagged, our schools’ roofs leaked, RFK Stadium went silent as our beloved football team moved to Maryland, taking jobs and tax revenues and tradition with them.

But now. Now. Construction cranes hover over the city like so many bumblebees over a verdant meadow. The Mixing Bowl project — vast, daring, inventive, employing hundreds of burly construction workers — rises south of Washington like a vast castle. The new Woodrow Wilson Bridge climbs higher, higher, while its steel moorings drive deeper, deeper into the Potomac riverbed. Washington calls to the world, “Washington builds.”

This week I got my hands on the “Ballpark District Urban Development Strategy,” prepared for the city by some 360 architects. I see plans for waterfront parks, new residences of all sizes and shapes, beautiful promenades and gathering spaces, shops and federal office buildings and restaurants and bars, all anchored by the new Nationals Stadium and an incredible surge in private investment, now under way in the Near Southeast area.

Our time of hiatus, of finger-pointing and aggressive inactivity, is long gone. The country sees us building and wants to come to Washington — to live, to attend a professional conference, or to see our beautiful sights. One day the Ballpark District of Near Southeast will take its place among the crown jewels of the Mall, Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Arlington National Cemetery, Union Station, and the beautiful neighborhoods of Washington.

As sure as the British burned the capital, the Nationals have saved it.

Our children’s joy: The next time you’re at a Nationals’ game, take a close look at the faces of the kids in attendance. Their expression can be captured in one word: enchantment. If you can remember the joy you felt the first time you walked through that tunnel of light into a baseball stadium, you know how much joy has been recaptured for our children.

I attended a game last week with a friend and his boys Drew and Justin (better known as “Vidro” and “Johnson” by the names on their Nationals’ jerseys). They looked out the top of the stadium, over the city, just as I had done in my youth as a Senators’ fan. They ate hot dogs that, some say, were actually at RFK the night the Senators played their last game. And they caught a Tee-shirt, launched to them via the “Nat Pack” cannonade to the upper deck between innings. When the game was over, these young kids did not want to leave RFK. They love it there.

There are some rough neighborhoods in the D.C. area, and there are some idyllic ones. I believe a day at the ballpark is the best thing for every kid — regardless of where they live. Baseball parks have worked their magic on American youth for generations, and it’s quite evident the kids of Greater Washington feel the powerful pull of baseball.

A baseball game has its own pace, virtually no time component, and an esthetic beauty nothing in the Smithsonian could match. And Washington kids have reclaimed baseball as their own, for all time. The circle is unbroken.

The Nationals have triumphed over evil, restored the mystical medium of radio, renewed and rebuilt our city, and re-established joy in our children’s hearts. They might not have made the playoffs, but they have clearly saved Washington.

FRANK CUMBERLAND

Business executive and free-lance writer in Falls Church. (On Oct. 3, the day after the Nationals’ baseball season ends, he may be seen throughout the area, weeping.)

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