- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

“We have a passion and a respect for the history of the game that we will honor and promote.”

— “The Lerner Philosophy” May 3, 2006

OK, fine. The first thing the Lerner family should do, then, is to insist to Mayor Tony Williams and the D.C. Council that the new Anacostia Waterfront Stadium be named in honor of Washington’s greatest ballplayer ever.

Call it “Walter Johnson Park.”

If you know baseball history, you probably are aware that Johnson — aka the Big Train — won 417 games for frequently lousy Washington teams from 1907 to 1927, the second most ever. Way back in 1956, Walter Johnson High opened in Montgomery County, where he lived, as the only public school ever named for a ballplayer. Now it’s high time for the District to do its part.

Never mind the millions that would accrue from selling stadium naming rights, because some things are more important than money — like honoring your own. I said the same thing 15 years ago when Baltimore was building what should have been called Babe Ruth Park. I lost that one, although I must admit “Oriole Park at Camden Yards” has a catchy ring to it.

Where would you rather take a child, friend or date to see a ballgame: Walter Johnson Park or, say, Preparation H Stadium? (Possible slogan for the latter: “You Never Felt So Good Sitting Down.”)

“Walter Johnson Park — it’s a nice idea,” said Carolyn Thomas, the great pitcher’s daughter. “I’d be surprised if it happened, but it would be a wonderful tribute.”

Clark Griffith II, whose grandfather owned the original Senators and revered Johnson, agreed.

“It would be exactly the right thing to do,” Griffith said from his law office in Minneapolis.

But Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) never got the bat off her shoulder when asked at yesterday’s ballpark groundbreaking exercises if she favored naming the stadium after Walter Johnson.

“Who?” Norton said. “I never heard anybody mention him when I was growing up. When did he play?”

Henry W. Thomas, Johnson’s grandson and biographer, doubts it will happen, because of — what else? — the money available from naming rights.

“I’d settle for a statue, like they have outside so many other parks now,” Thomas said. “Maybe it could be in front of a museum honoring the Senators’ greatest players.”

Maybe, but why do things halfway? If we’re gonna honor the man from Kansas who probably threw the fastest fastball ever, let’s go all the way.

“I’m sure we’ll honor the old Senators [and, hopefully, the Homestead Grays of Negro League renown] somehow,” said Nationals co-owner-to-be Mark Lerner. “But we haven’t really discussed it yet. Today I still feel like there’s a 2-by-4 on my back. When something like [being awarded a franchise] happens, it changes your life forever.”

Yesterday’s ceremonial groundbreaking near South Capitol and M streets SE gave hundreds of city officials, other dignitaries and fans a chance to celebrate under a blazing sun that suggested August rather than May temperatures. In fact, emcee and former baseball P.A. announcer Charlie Brotman avowed, “this is more of a crowd than I used to see when the Senators played.”

The Nationals were represented by soon-to-be-jobless president Tony Tavares, manager Frank Robinson and players Brian Schneider and Marlon Anderson, among others. A wise guy asked Schneider whether he had hit up Ted or Mark Lerner for a raise.

“Not yet,” the catcher said, “But it’s good to have them here. They seem like good people.”

Off in the distance, a sign with an arrow on it read, “Home Plate Here.” Another sign sprouted in the hands of protesters when Mayor Anthony Williams arose to speak read, “Feed the Needy, Not the Greedy!”

Mostly, the program featured D.C. officials congratulating one another, deservedly or otherwise. Council chairman Linda Cropp, whose attempt to change the stadium lease between the city and Major League Baseball nearly killed the whole deal, delivered a high-pitched harangue during which she bellowed, “Go Nats” and said the ballpark would benefit “whites, blacks, Latinos and Hispanics.”

Latinos and Hispanics? Redundancy, anyone?

Finally, after Brotman led those assembled in an amended rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Park,” many members of the District’s new baseball elite grabbed shovels shaped like baseball bats and pretended to dig up the loose dirt piled in what will be right-center field. (The actual construction work began several weeks ago.)

It was a day for celebration — and everybody wearing a bright red Nationals cap did so with abandon. Now comes another wait to see whether the ballpark indeed will be ready for its scheduled opening in April 2008 — and whether the District’s new baseball power brokers will pay proper homage to the city’s greatest horsehide hero.

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