- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

It’s perpetual baseball winter again in Washington. Baseball’s nuclear winter. The unassisted winter of our discontent.

Next comes spring without training, followed by summer without baseball. Then, as other cities experience the Fall Classic, we endure the fall of hope, gradually realizing the hideous cycle is starting again, and we face yet another baseball season without a team of our own.

Fall was truly a cruel season in Boston and Chicago. The Red Sox and the Cubs choked. Well maybe I should say “the fan” choked the Cubs and the Red Sox manager choked the Red Sox. Or that Ruth choked the Sox, and the goat choked the Cubs. Doesn’t matter. Their collars drew up real, real tight on their necks, their windpipes constricted, and they kept their “tradition of choking.”

But there was an upside for their fans: Every single one of them was interviewed on national television, to give them a chance to tell the world how sorry they were, and how much they had suffered. I have never seen such a pathetic sobfest in my life, as uniformly beefy Cubby and Bosox fans wept for the cameras.

Then came what I really thought: These morose, bulging fans need to shut up. They do not know the meaning of suffering. I do. And no one from the Gushing Channel is asking me about my feelings.

I am a Washington Senators fan. I know suffering. Not the shattered, empty, hollowness that floods the City of the Big Shoulders and the City of the Big Dig every fall. I have suffered April through October for 32 straight years. Spring in Chicago and Boston brings hope, however vain; for me, it brings only hopelessness and despair, and — most tragically — soccer at RFK Stadium.

If you visit my home, you will be expected to spend a few respectful moments before my Senators shrine. There, you’ll find the baseball signed by Brant Alyea, Bob Humphreys, and Bernie Allen, Senators who, I believed then and believe now, should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

You’ll find the team photo, signed for me one summer night in 1968, by legendary Senator third baseman Ken McMullen.

A quick word about McMullen and the loyalty of Senators’ fans. In my Berwyn neighborhood in College Park in 1968, the kids held one true article of faith: Ken McMullen was a better third baseman than Brooks Robinson. Of course, the whole world already knew Mike Epstein was better than Boog Powell, that Ed Stroud was a better outfielder than Frank Robinson; and that Ed Brinkman was a better shortstop than Luis Aparacio. These were consensus opinions throughout professional baseball, to the point of becoming truisms.

But the Brooks Robinson cult drove us crazy, and we could never understand why the people in Baltimore kept saying he was better than McMullen. Fortunately, the passing of time has vindicated the excellent judgment of Senators fans, as Brooks slipped into obscurity and Ken went on to superstardom.

My father, growing up in Georgetown when horses pulled fire engines and Tad Lincoln still lived in the District, saw glorious battles between Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth at Griffith Stadium. When the Nats won the World Series in 1924, he was 12 years old. A year later, the Senators lost the Series. I keep wondering: Who the heck keeps telling us the ‘20s were an unbroken Yankees dynasty. It’s nonsense. Senators’ fans even have to suffer retrospectively.

The current torture (well, besides the bereave-a-thons in Chicago and Boston) is our dream of baseball’s return to Washington. I envision 44,000 people, night after night, on the banks of the Anacostia, in the moonlit shadow of the monuments, celebrating baseball and each other, forever. Our national capital, our Capitol, and our national game, in one beautiful frame.

Then somebody starts talking about putting our team in Monterrey, Mexico, instead. It’s like the anesthesia is wearing off, but you’re still too dopey to talk — and you hear the surgeon say, “We’re going back in.” And the operation lasts 32 years.

I am fascinated by the practice of the wildly false public accusation. Accusations so obviously false their very utterance tempts authentication. Think Christopher Hitchens blasting Mother Theresa for deceptiveness. Sidney Blumenthal charging Bill Clinton with making honest public statements. And the worst: The commonplace accusation that Washington Senator fans were not loyal.

In 2004, with no team to love, sitting by my shrine and my Senators banner, I am told I lost my team in 1971 because I was not loyal. In 1969, the Senators outdrew the San Francisco Giants. The Giants had Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, and a pennant race. Nearly a million fans attended Senators’ home games that year. In 1970, we outdrew the Giants again. The Giants didn’t move to Texas.

Suffering. It is rare for my brothers and sisters to gather, even now, when we don’t go through the Nats lineup, position by position. We center, ultimately, certainly, inevitably, on the greatest player of his time: Frank Howard — our beloved Hondo. The heroic figure who hit a baseball farther than any man before or since.

In the Cumberland home, we loved each other, and we loved five other people: John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Frank Howard. And in 1971, we lost Hondo. We lost them all. They moved to Texas, leaving us to believe the San Diego Padres would come to Washington in 1973; then maybe an expansion team in the ‘80s, or maybe the Expos now.

On opening day 1972, RFK was empty, and so was I, a 12-year-old kid in College Park, still a member of the Young Senators Fan Club.

On that day, kids my age in Boston and Chicago went to Fenway and Wrigley to see Carl Yastrzemski and Ernie Banks. Now, beer and sausage laden, they kiss each other’s tears away on national television because of one loss. They do not know loss. They do not know the meaning of suffering.

FRANK CUMBERLAND

Mr. Cumberland is a lifelong Washingtonian, writer, and business executive who works in Falls Church. He predicts, with the return of Joe Gibbs, the Redskins will be undefeated and unscored-upon next season.

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