- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

THE WAY IT WAS

Thirty long years ago this week, the Washington Senators bashed the Oakland Athletics and superstar-to-be Vida Blue 8-0 on the last Opening Day at RFK Stadium. It was a raw day, and many of the 45,061 spectators left before the proceedings were completed in late afternoon.
It was the expansion Senators' first Opening Day victory in nine years, and April 5, 1971, was special very special for another reason.
It was, literally, the beginning of the end.
Less than six months later, carpetbagger owner Robert Short would request and receive permission from the American League to transmogrify the Senators into the Texas Rangers. This time there would be no replacement team, as there had been when Calvin Griffith moved the original Senators to Minnesota in 1961. This time we were stuck, doomed to a grossly incomplete sports scene without the national pastime in the Nation's Capital.
Three decades later, our stay in horsehide limbo makes Rip Van Winkle's snooze look like a catnap, and there is no end in sight.
But in the spring of 1971, with catastrophe lurking after years of rumors, our main worry was whether the Senators could rebound in Ted Williams' third season as manager. His first had produced an astounding 86-76 record as Teddy Ballgame miraculously turned powder-puff guys into power hitters. In 1970, though, the magic was gone. The Senators finished last in the American League East with a 70-92 record, putting a capper on the collapse by losing their last 14 games.
But now it was April again, and hope sprang anew. During the winter, owner/general manager Short obtained Denny McLain, who had won 31 games for Detroit in 1968. True, Short surrendered the left side of the Senators' infield third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and shortstop Ed Brinkman in the deal, but wasn't a star pitcher and gate attraction worth it? (Not really: McLain finished the '71 season 10-22 with a then-horrendous 4.27 ERA and was out of the game a year later.)
And true, Short had threatened the D.C. Armory Board after the '70 season that he really might leave town if it didn't grant him a sweetheart deal. That brought mostly chuckles. Washington without baseball? Why, you might as well move the Capitol or White House to another city.
"We had no idea that Opening Day that the team would move," Senators hero Frank Howard said over the phone last week from Tampa, where he is the Devil Rays' special adviser for baseball operations. "We used to wonder why we played exhibition games in Dallas-Fort Worth the day before Opening Day a couple of times, but it didn't dawn on me that something was in the wind."
In 1971, it became an ill wind.
"Opening Day in Washington was always a thrill, and it was particularly satisfying to beat Vida Blue," Howard said. "He was an amazing pitcher. I don't think he lost another game that year until almost the All-Star Game."
Blue had come to the majors at the end of 1970 and pitched a no-hitter in his second start. In 1971, the 21-year-old left-hander fashioned a 24-8 record with eight shutouts and a 1.82 ERA that gained him the AL's most valuable player and Cy Young awards. But in the opener, he had nothing. Blue lasted 1 2/3 innings and allowed four runs (just one earned) and three hits. He walked four, and the Senators scored two runs in four of the first five innings against Blue and successors Jim Panther and Jim Roland.
Blue won his next nine decisions and had a major league-record 17 victories before the All-Star Game, which he also won. The Senators' mini-outburst was nothing less than an aberration.
"I had come to spring training directly from boot camp at Fort Bragg [N.C.], and I never really got comfortable that spring," recalled Blue, who now works in community relations for the San Francisco Giants. "It was quite an honor to start the opener ahead of pitchers like Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, Blue Moon and Diego Segui, and I was very nervous. People tell you Opening Day is just another game, but that's not true, not in Washington."
The star pitcher this day wore a Senators uniform. Dick Bosman had won 16 games in 1970 and could have won 20 except for the team's late skid. Now he was being masterful again, unfurling a smart six-hit shutout and bamboozling a muscular A's lineup that included pesky Bert Campaneris, line drive-hitting Felipe Alou and slugging Reggie Jackson.
"It was really satisfying, because I hadn't pitched well in the 1970 opener against [Detroit's] Mickey Lolich," said Bosman, now minor league pitching coach for the Devil Rays after many years as a major league coach. "The A's obviously were a rising power, and I was very proud of that game. My wife is from Northern Virginia, and she was there with my grandmother, mom and dad."
Oakland would win 101 games that season and the AL West title, then capture three straight World Series from 1972 to 1974. In the '71 opener, however, logic was flying out of the ballpark like a Howard home run.
Although the Capital Clouter hit no homers after averaging 43 a year over the past four seasons, he drove in runs with a sacrifice fly in the fourth inning and a single in the fifth. And, startlingly, the 6-foot-7, 280-pound Hondo was being acclaimed for rare defensive displays. He made a nice catch of Dick Green's dying-duck swat to left-center with two on in the second inning and leaped high to rob Alou of a home run to left in the third.
"I felt like Bill Russell getting a key rebound," Twinkletoes Howard said of the catch on Alou. "I guess if you can't hit, you've got to be good on defense."
Another hero was rookie shortstop Toby Harrah, 22, who was trying to replace Brinkman at short. The youngster had two hits and much later would become the answer to a local trivia question: Who was the last ex-Senator to play in the major leagues? Harrah lasted until 1986, closing his career with, ironically, the Rangers.
Another Senator in the spotlight was center fielder Curt Flood, a former star St. Louis Cardinals outfielder who had sat out the 1970 season to protest baseball's reserve clause that locked players to one team. Unfortunately, Flood's skills had eroded during his layoff. At 33, he was all done, lasting only 13 games and batting .200 before quitting.
They were a motley crew, those 1971 Senators, and a losing one, too, with a final 63-96 record. But at least they were our losers.
Now Howard, who lives in the Shenandoah Valley, and Bosman dream of a day when they will be reunited with a team representing Washington.
"I consider myself a native Washingtonian," said Howard, who broke in with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958. "The Senators gave me a chance to play every day, and the support and consideration I got from the fans was unbelievable… . Not having a team in Washington hurts me deeply and hurts baseball."
Amen, brother. And now the only possible cry is: How long, O Lord, how long?

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