- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2005

For more than 33 years, Joe Grzenda has kept the ball in a big brown envelope, secured inside a desk drawer. It has stayed there the entire time. But now the ball — and Grzenda — will be taking a little trip.

The destination is RFK Stadium and the first home game of the Washington Nationals on Thursday night.

“This is exciting,” he said.

Grzenda plans to emerge from the Nationals dugout before the game, walk to the third-base foul line and hand the ball to President Bush. He thinks he might say something like, “Watch your target and throw a strike.”

The president then will throw the ceremonial first pitch to inaugurate the Nationals’ home opener, the first official major league baseball game played in the nation’s capital since Sept. 30, 1971.

Grzenda, who will be joined by nine other former Washington Senators players for the Opening Night festivities, was clutching the same ball that night. The left-hander, then 34, was pitching for the Senators in the last game of the year, with the team about to leave the District and become the Texas Rangers. He stood on the mound in the top of the ninth protecting a 7-5 lead over the New York Yankees. There were two out, none on, and Horace Clarke was at the plate.

But something was amiss among the crowd of about 14,000. Anger permeated the smell of beer and hot dogs. Signs and bedsheets vilifying Senators owner Bob Short, the maestro of the move to Texas, were everywhere.

“Everybody was a little nervous,” Grzenda recalled from his home in Daleville, Pa. “Somebody told me: When there are two out, hesitate on the mound and let the bullpen empty. They knew something was going to happen.”

Grzenda, wrapping up what would be the best season of an eventual eight-year big league career, retired the first two hitters — Felipe Alou (now the manager of the San Francisco Giants) and Bobby Murcer — on ground balls. Now Clarke was up.

“He took a lot of practice swings,” Grzenda said. “I’m saying, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’ Then I turned around, and it was over. I saw the dust coming up from the first-base side. The fans jumped the fence and kept coming.”

They stormed the field and tore the place apart in a mad scramble for souvenirs. Bases, pieces of turf, pieces of the ballpark itself — all were fair game.

“I just stood there,” Grzenda, 67, said. “I don’t know why. I grabbed my hat. I figured that would go first. The hat always goes first. I had the ball in my hand. A big guy was coming at me. He had a beard, long hair. I didn’t know if he was going to tackle me. There was no place to run, except home plate, really. He just came up to me and touched my shirt and kept going.”

Grzenda kept going, too, into the clubhouse, still clutching the ball. He took it with him when he left the ballpark for the last time, climbed into his car with his wife and two children and drove back home to Daleville. The ball went into the drawer with some other memorabilia.

“I wanted to stay in Washington,” said Grzenda, who pitched for St. Louis in 1972 and then retired. He later ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner and worked many years for a battery company. “We weren’t big winners, but we had a good bunch of guys. [Manager] Ted [Williams] kept us loose. I loved playing for him. You’d sit there and listen to his stories.”

Grzenda’s story, told often, now has a surprise ending. Closure. The finishing of some business.

“End the 1971 season and start the 2005 season,” he said. “I think everybody’s going to like it.”

Among those expected to join Grzenda on the field before the game are Chuck Hinton, Fred Valentine, Jim Hannan and Frank Howard. All remained in the D.C. area or eventually returned, although Howard is working as a coach for the Yankees’ Class AAA affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. The out-of-towners are Grzenda, Jim Lemon, Dick Bosman, Ed Brinkman, Roy Sievers and the elder statesman of the bunch, Mickey Vernon, who turns 87 on April 22.

“I hear that other than the presidential inauguration, this is the social event of the year,” said Lemon, a Senators outfielder from 1954 through 1960 and the manager in 1968.

The group is a cross-section representing the two incarnations of the Senators — the original franchise that occupied Griffith Stadium and moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul after the 1960 season and the expansion Senators who took the field in 1961 and moved into D.C. Stadium (renamed RFK Stadium in 1969) the next year. Accompanying them will be a ton of memories.

Hannan, a right-hander, recalls pitching a shutout against Kansas City in 1965, shortly after he was called up from the minors. Listening to the game on the radio in a hospital in Jersey City, N.J., which was somehow able to pick up the signal, was his father, who was dying of colon cancer.

“He passed away three or four weeks later,” Hannan said.

Hannan, who was dealt to Detroit after the 1970 season in the infamous Denny McLain trade, works as a stockbroker in the District and lives in Annandale.

Valentine, a Senators outfielder from 1964 to 1968 whose nickname was “Squeaky,” bought a house in Northwest Washington, two blocks from the Carter Barron Amphitheater, in 1968, the year he finished his career with Baltimore. He has lived there since. What Valentine remembers most of all was how hot it would get on the field.

“A hundred and fifteen, 120 degrees,” said Valentine, who has worked in corporate minority relations since he retired. “The air couldn’t get down into the stadium. A lot of times, the players got heatstrokes. I remember [second baseman] Don Blasingame sitting in the dugout after the first game of a doubleheader. He wasn’t blinking an eye. I waved a hand in front of him. Nothing. They took him to the hospital. He was dehydrated. It was just something you lived with.”

Lemon, a slugger who hit 38 homers in 1960, was part of a group put together by broadcaster Bob Wolff known as the “Singing Senators.” Mr. Wolff strummed his ukulele and the players tried to carry a tune. They even made it on “Today,” with Dave Garroway as the host.

“We looked better than we sounded,” said Lemon, who is 77 and lives in Jackson, Miss. “None of us knew a lot about harmony.”

Bosman, now 61 and the pitching coach for the Hudson Valley Renegades, a rookie league team, said he loved pitching for the Senators. His wife is from Fairfax County, and he sold cars for an area dealership during the offseason. He lived in Woodbridge, Va., until 1986.

When the Senators left Washington, Bosman was “sad and disappointed,” he said. “I was melancholy. I was all those things you could say about someone who had a deep, heartfelt affection for an area.”

A happier occasion awaits Thursday.

“It’s going to be special,” he said.

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