- 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.

Baseball books and memorabilia fill shelves in the office of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a lifelong fan of the game and standout player at Dunbar High School who vividly remembers attending Senators games at Griffith Stadium. (Rod Lamkey Jr./The Washington Times)
Baseball books and memorabilia fill shelves in the office of D.C. Mayor ... more >

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.

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