Wednesday, September 29, 2004

So it has happened.


Baseball in Washington … and how are we to react?

There is satisfaction, of course, but also sadness. For those of us old enough to remember when Bob Short’s Senators skedaddled off to Texas 33 years ago today, we mourn the loss of all those summers without a ballclub to call our own. We’ll never get those back. Never.

Some of us who were young then have entered our golden years. Some have defected to the Baltimore Orioles, or perhaps to the team that introduced them to the game as children. Some have boycotted baseball.

Some have died.

For decades, I wondered why I didn’t rend my garments and gnash my teeth when the Senators fled. Much later, I remembered: The team had been so bad and carpet-bagging owner Bob Short so venal that I just didn’t care anymore. Let them go — good riddance. We’ll have another team in a year or two anyway.

Won’t we?

Starting in 1949, when I hid a portable radio under my pillow so my parents wouldn’t hear me listening to games from the “West” (Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis) that started at 9 our time, the Senators were my mini-heroes.

I knew they weren’t going to win a pennant — they had a better chance of flapping their collective wings and flying to the moon. But maybe, just maybe, they could approach the .500 mark and/or what was then called the First Division.

(Don’t hold your breath, kid.)

The first taste of horsehide reality came early. After starting the ‘49 season 2-11, the Senators went wild in the West. While world affairs waited respectfully, the Nats — the team nicknames were pretty much interchangeable — won nine in a row.

Nine in a row!

They came home to a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue — honest! — at which giddy fans carried signs proclaiming, “We’ll win plenty with Sam Dente,” “We’ll go far with Al Kozar” and “Eddie Yost is the most.”

Inexplicably (at least to me), those Senators finished last with a 50-104 record. Upon being invited to seek other employment at season’s end, manager Joe Kuhel lost his cool and proclaimed for the sporting ages, “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers.” At least, that’s what the papers said he said.

First baseman Mickey Vernon, ultimately a two-time batting champion, was my favorite Senator. More than five decades later, I had the privilege of watching with Mickey as his hometown of Marcus Hook, Pa., unveiled a statue of him last fall. If you’re a baseball fan at all, you know how I felt.

I had other favorites, too, especially lanky shortstop Pete Runnels. I named a dog after Pete, which some people might not consider a compliment. He (the ballplayer, not the dog) later won two batting titles of his own — after the Senators traded him to the Red Sox.

By the time Calvin Griffith shanghaied the Senators to Minnesota and we were blessed, if that’s the word, with an expansion team in 1961, I was no longer idolizing baseball teams or players. I remember getting emotionally involved with the new Senators only when Frank Howard bashed one of his monstrous home runs and when Ted Williams came down from hitter’s heaven to manage in 1969 and suddenly produced a ballclub that finished 10 games over .500. Meanwhile, Teddy Ballgame led the league in managerial fussin’ and cussin’.

Otherwise, baseball in Washington was a drab affair through most of the ‘60s, with the Senators losing games and series in a steamy facility designed basically for football and located near the D.C. Jail in Southeast. But as we have learned, bad beats nothing.

Like most fans in suburban Maryland, our family switched allegiances to the Orioles after a decent mourning period. It was rewarding for a while. The Birds usually won in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. And there was much to cheer: Earl, Brooks, ‘Cakes, Boog, Ed-die, Cal and The Streak, Camden Yards. Then Peter Angelos had to show up and spoil everything.

When George Bush or John Kerry throws out the first ball on Opening Day 2005 at RFK Stadium, it will be the best day in my half-century involvement with sports in Washington as both fan and journalist. I know everything that’s wrong with baseball — and God knows that’s a lot — but I can’t turn my back on the greatest game ever devised by man, no matter that it turned its back on us in 1971.

Once baseball grabs us, you see, it doesn’t let go.

Just listen, and even now you might be able to hear the joyous cry that will bloom in Washington along with the cherry blossoms next spring:

Play ball!

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