- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Last winter, the man largely credited with morphing the Washington Nationals from perennial losers to the talk of the town left D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray a voice-mail message.

The ball club that eventually would take home the best regular season record in the major leagues had received its first honor of the year, so general manager Mike Rizzo thought the big man at city hall — and the Nats’ No. 1 fan — should know about it.

“He said, ‘Hey, Mayor, I just wanted to let you know. Remember we had the worst farm system in baseball? We just got voted as having the best farm system in baseball,’ ” Mr. Gray recalled Friday from his sixth-floor office at the John A. Wilson Building.

In late September, Mr. Rizzo sent Mr. Gray a ball cap and a handwritten note to thank him after the Nats clinched a spot in the postseason with a victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The hat simply said “Playoffs,” a word that hadn’t been associated with a D.C. baseball club since 1933.

About a week later, the Nats clinched their first National League East title, capping an amazing turnabout from the losing seasons that had marked the club’s tenure since moving from Montreal in 2005.

The mayor is far from the only Washingtonian giddy at the prospect of the city’s first postseason baseball game in 79 years, and not the only local fan likely to have trouble attending to his day job when the first pitch is set to be thrown Wednesday at 1:07 p.m.

Employers say they are expecting more than a few absences because of “Nationals flu.” Local sports-bar owners throughout the region are projecting an unusual midday, midweek rush of business when Nationals’ starting pitcher Edwin Jackson takes the mound against the world champion St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the best-of-five series.

Dwayne Langley, master barber at Perfect Cut on H Street Northeast, said he was hoping for a slow day at the office so he and his fellow barbers can cut out to the bar next door to watch the game.

“We’ll probably just slide on down there to Argonauts,” Mr. Langley said.

Mr. Gray, who grew up in Northeast and spent most summers playing ball in sandlots near his home from sunrise to sunset, is relishing his de facto role as the Nats’ biggest cheerleader, punctuating his news conferences with talk of a “Beltway Series” against the Baltimore Orioles and assertions that the “Big Red Machine” — a moniker for the dominant Cincinnati Reds teams of the ‘70s — now plays on South Capitol Street. He hopes to be at the ballpark Wednesday afternoon when the Nats host the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the Divisional Series.

It is not uncommon for a politician to curry favor with his constituents by touting the home team, especially during a playoff run. Trash talk, boundless optimism and silly wagers with rival mayors are the norm.

But seldom do these politicians have the athletic bona fides of Mr. Gray, who played in youth leagues against players four years older than he was and knocked baseballs out of almost every high school field in the city — decades before a 19-year-old phenom named Bryce Harper launched bombs into the Nevada desert and brought watch-through-your-fingers base running to the ballpark along the Anacostia River.

Rooftops and flagpoles

Mr. Gray, 69, played football growing up, “but I loved baseball more than anything,” he said.

He was pretty good at it, too. Mr. Gray worked his way from the sandlot near Gallaudet University to the recreational leagues to Dunbar High School, where his standout power eventually earned him a reputation as a top-flight ballplayer.

“I hit one on a house across the street at Cardozo,” he said, referring to the high school in Columbia Heights. “And then I did the major cardinal sin. I hit one to straightaway center field. I stood there and watched it, and the ball hit the flagpole and came back. They called it a ground-rule double. If it had hit the fence or something, I might have not made it to second.”

That’s not a bad problem to have, and Mr. Gray — a left-handed first baseman who still plays softball once a week — eventually earned a major-league tryout.

“I feel reasonably certain that I probably could have gone to the minor leagues,” he said. “But to be honest with you, I didn’t have the sense of self-confidence that I thought I would make it.”

Mr. Gray’s parents wanted him to go on to college — they had never even gone to high school — “so at the end of the day I felt like I had to make a choice.”

A tough decision, to be sure. But it is hard to make the case for regret when you are sitting in a suite that overlooks a city of 618,000 people, a good number of whom know your name and read about you in the newspaper every day.

“What I’ve been able to do with my life has been extremely rewarding,” he said. “It isn’t like I look back on the option that I chose and really had a dismal experience. It’s been anything but.”

Baseball’s reign in LeDroit Park

Mr. Gray’s first brush with the major leagues came about a mile from his boyhood home. From 1911 to its demolition in 1965, Griffith Stadium occupied a large space between Georgia Avenue and Fifth Street in Northwest. Howard University Hospital sits on the spot now. The streetcars along the corridor have been replaced by cars navigating the busy intersection with Florida Avenue, which cut a diagonal path south of the ballpark.

The Washington Senators won the World Series in 1924, secured the American League pennant the next year and enjoyed a blip of success in the early 1930s. Other than that, well, there were always the hot dogs and peanuts.

“They were a pretty dismal team,” Mr. Gray said with a laugh. “They never were competitive.”

Mr. Gray said he took in a good number of games among the people who sat under the watchful eye of the National Bohemian beer logo on a large sign above left field, although fans couldn’t consume the product in the stands.

In a legendary moment that has been dissected by biographers and physicists alike, visiting New York Yankee Mickey Mantle smashed a legendary home run in 1953 that clipped Mr. Boh and landed in LeDroit Park. Mr. Gray said he saw the Yankee switch-hitter crush one to the row houses beyond the park’s confines, but he can’t be sure it was that famous “tape measure” shot that traveled a disputed 565 feet.

“I just remember how far it went,” Mr. Gray said. “I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe a ball could be hit that far.”

He mainly cheered on his hero, Senators first baseman Mickey Vernon, and Mr. Gray still wears No. 3 in Vernon’s honor during his weekly softball games. The old ballpark, distinguished by a tall fence in right field and odd angles in center, had bullpens on the field outside the foul lines and offered an intimacy that is hard to find in ballparks today, Mr. Gray said.

“If you were down there, you could talk to the players,” he said. “They didn’t talk so much back to you, but they were right there.”

But by 1961, they wouldn’t be. Future Hall-of-Famer Harmon Killebrew and the Senators were moving to Minneapolis, a move Mr. Gray described as “kind of sudden.”

The District quickly received a new franchise, but the love affair was short-lived. By 1971, after Griffith Stadium was razed to build the hospital and the team moved to D.C. Stadium, later to be renamed RFK Stadium, the team was leaving for Arlington, Texas.

“They were mad,” Mr. Gray said of local fans. “The city felt like it had been disrespected once again. That was it for the next 33 years.”

A D.C. sports obsession

The Nationals’ rise to prominence over the past six months has many wondering whether a sea change is on the horizon in Near Southeast, from long-awaited amenities in the Navy Yard to challenging the notion that the District can never be a true baseball town as long as transient newcomers hold on to their beloved Cubs, Mets and so forth.

But the debate about whether the District should even have a baseball franchise took a tortured route. Much of the angst funneled through the D.C. Council, where lawmakers weighed the potential payoff of baseball in the nation’s capital versus millions of dollars in public financing for a new stadium.

“Some days you look at the deal and you wonder,” Mr. Gray said. “But overall I think those who made the decision to bring baseball here really have been vindicated.”

Progress has not come easily. A recent standoff over who should pay for late-night Metro service in the event of a game lasting after midnight — the city or the team’s owners — prompted some residents to wonder, once again, why taxpayers and businesses paid so much for the team in the first place.

But political tensions can be overshadowed as long as families cheer on Tom, George, Abe and Teddy alongside Jayson and Gio and the rest of the Nats, and as long as record crowds flood the city’s coffers from a 10 percent sales tax on parking, merchandise and $8 Miller Lites at the ballpark.

“No matter how the Nationals wind up, there’s no question that they’ve got a bigger fan base now,” Mr. Gray said. “I don’t think there’s any reason to think that they won’t be just as good next year.”

Tim Devaney contributed to this report.

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