Thirty years ago the great Frank Deford wrote of our Nation’s Capital: (1) Until recently Washington was a sleepy Southern Town. (2) It is recession-proof. (3) Nobody ever goes home.
To Mr. Deford’s three truths we add a fourth: Whatever the name of the baseball team and no matter who is on the roster, it has always been terrible.
But we’re only going back as far as the 19th Century.
The newest entry, the Nationals – or as their name was misspelled on the front of some uniforms the other night, the “Natinals” – finally won another game. Its second in 12 attempts. And because of rain delays and a constant drizzle, the attendance at Nationals Park was 12,473. The smallest in history.
But hang around. The old Senators used to have a pitcher, Walter Johnson, known as “The Big Train.” Now they’ve got a seamstress who’s “The Big Typo.”
These Nationals only have been in town five seasons. They used to be called the Expos and played in Montreal, another city that embraced baseball with, well, if that was passion, you’d hate to attempt to describe apathy.
Some would suggest five years isn’t long enough to judge the sport’s viability in a particular location. Let us then rummage through history.
We start with the Washington Senators, also called the Nationals, who were dropped from the National League in 1900 and accepted in the new American League in 1901. There used to be a maxim about Washington – General George, not the town on the Potomac. He was “First in War, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Corny, but there was no Comedy Central or YouTube in those days.
The Senators went to the World Series in 1933, and after that had only two winning seasons in the next 25. The adage was revised to “Washington, First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”
Novelist Douglas Wallop (now is that a baseball name or not?) in 1954 expressed the frustrations of Senators partisans with the book “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.” An aging fan sells his soul to the devil to help the Nats beat the hated New Yorkers. America loved it more when it was transformed into the musical “Damn Yankees.”
“Ya gotta have heart,” the actor-ballplayers sang, which they had. And with “Shoeless” Joe Hardy, they also had a superstar before the creation of the word itself. Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, Mo., a combination of DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols, with a little A-Rod for good measure.
In 1960 those Senators, the real ones, not the stage version, were shifted to Minneapolis to become the Twins and recession-proof Washington was awarded an expansion franchise to be named, lo, the Senators. Confusing, but no one said the people in charge of baseball ever made a lot of sense.
Senators II lasted only a decade, until 1971, when they were moved to Texas and labeled the Rangers. So Washington was without our National Pastime (if you ignore lobbying) another 25 years until the Expos crossed the border the end of 2004.
Maybe instead of the Nationals, the ball club should have been called the Generals, who are the Harlem Globetrotters’ nightly foils. The Generals dropped something like 13,000 games from the 1950s to the 1990s. The Nats have a ways to go, but nothing’s out of reach. Including the skimming of signing bonuses from the Nationals Dominican prospects. Not enough the franchise is awful, some of the people involved apparently are unethical.
Jim Bowden, then the Nationals general manager – and a splendid job he had done – resigned the beginning of March in the wake of investigations of whether baseball scouts and executives accepted kickbacks from the bonuses. As he departed, Bowden, reading a statement, denied “false allegations, insinuations and innuendoes by the press. There have been no charges made, and there has been no indication that parties have found any wrongdoing on my part.”
Not a lot of right-doing either, if you study the Nats’ record. But Washington, the city, not the general nor the Generals, seemly has become immune to losing. It’s in the District of Columbia’s baseball DNA. For a hundred years Washington has lost either lost games or teams.
Now it has a relatively new team that’s a reject from Montreal, a team that opened the season with seven straight defeats and is so star-crossed it can’t even have the nickname spelled correctly on the home uniforms of Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman.
Obviously in any new version of “Damn Yankees,” the old guy sells his soul for a tailor who can pass a spelling bee.