Wednesday, September 29, 2004

With the cellar-dwelling Montreal Expos headed for Washington and RFK Stadium next spring, there will be times when we will lament our team’s performance on the field. We may be inclined to call them bums a time or two. But they’ll be our bums. And that makes all the difference in the world. For the first time since 1971, the national pastime will have a team in the national capital. We had hoped that the taxpayer would not be so deeply involved in subsidizing a new ballpark, but we nonetheless enthusiastically welcome the return of big-league baseball to Washington.

Notwithstanding the 33-year drought, Washington has a rich baseball tradition. In 1859, the city’s first team was named the Potomacs. Later that year, it was joined by the Washington Nationals, known as the Nats. Both teams were made up mostly of government clerks. In 1886, the Nats changed their name to the Statesmen and acquired big-league status by joining the National League. After four seasons, the league’s destitute Washington franchise was replaced by Cincinnati. (Yes, the Cincinnati Reds.) After playing in minor leagues over the next two seasons, the Washington franchise rejoined the National League in 1892. The team became known as the Senators before folding after the 1899 season.

In 1901, the newly constituted Washington Senators became a founding member of the renegade American League. The team’s first decade of futility inspired the putdown beloved by vaudeville comics: “Washington — First in War, First in Peace and Last in the American League.” The nickname changed from Senators to Nationals in 1905 and reverted to Senators in 1945. (Headline writers, who covet short words, never gave up the occasional use of “Nats.”)

Without a doubt Washington’s most glorious season was 1924, the only year the Senators won a World Series. What a finish. In the 12-inning seventh game of the ‘24 Series, Walter “Big Train” Johnson — the 36-year-old pitcher who led the American League that year in wins, earned-run average, strikeouts and shutouts — pitched the final four innings in scoreless relief to beat the New York Giants.

Twice the American League abandoned the capital. After the 1960 season, owner Clark Griffith relocated the Senators to Minnesota, but Washington received an expansion franchise for the following season. Bob Short, who bought the franchise for $9 million, moved the team to Texas after the 1971 season.

The region’s rich demographics offer the opportunity for shrewd owners to field a highly competitive National League team. Fans and taxpayers should — and will — expect nothing less. Now, play ball.

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