Go, Nationals! Finally, Something In D.C. With a Possibly Happy Ending
Jesus said that we should forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). I figure I only have to forgive the Washington Nationals once.
So I have. And now I want them to win the World Series.
The Nationals’s sin was a significant one. They beat my team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, in the National League Division Series. They did it in a cruel way, too, spotting the Dodgers a 3–0 lead in the deciding fifth game before sneaking back to win.
They were somewhat more decisive in the National League Championship Series, blowing away the St. Louis Cardinals in four games straight.
Now they will face either the Houston Astros or the New York Yankees in the World Series. I don’t dislike the Astros. I do dislike the Yankees. Either way, I’m all-in for the Nationals, because it would be a great baseball story.
Why? Just remember how the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs have been showered with attention this century for finally winning the World Series.
The Sox did it in 2004, snapping a drought that stretched back to 1918. The Cubs won in 2016, for the first time since 1908. Yeah, ouch.
The last time a Washington baseball team won the Major League World Series was 1924, which means Washington fans have been without a championship for 95 years. For those keeping score at home, that’s nine years longer than the Red Sox’s drought.
There are asterisks here. Washington didn’t even have a team for 34 of those years, because, well, because its fans got tired of supporting a team that never won. The original Nationals/Senators became the Minnesota Twins after the 1960 season and the replacement Senators, who launched in 1961, became the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season.
Baseball returned in 2005 mostly because another city, Montreal, supported its team even less.
Point being that the Red Sox and Cubs had armies of life-long fans with the hardest of hard-core credentials. Washington, let’s admit it, does not. That makes it no less of an underdog story.
I attended the last home game played by Senators 2.0, in late September 1971, and while the Senators’s departure didn’t create as much furor around D.C. as, say, the Vietnam war, it was the angriest baseball stadium I have ever seen or ever likely will see.
Late in the game the Senators were beating the Yankees. Frank Howard, the only exceptional player on the team unless you count manager Ted Williams, had hit a home run that drove the place nuts. But the mood was getting darker, and in the last inning, with Joe Grzenda about to close out the Yankees, the fans stormed the field.
After a few futile pleas over the PA system, the umpires forfeited the game to the Yankees, 9–0. It was a perfect ending to that chapter, though the forfeit did cost Howard credit for the home run.
That final season was off-center from the start. In fact, back to October 1970, when owner Bob Short traded for Denny McLain.
In 1968 with the Detroit Tigers, McLain won 31 games, a number no pitcher since then has reached. By 1971, however, McLain was coming off a suspension for gambling, foreshadowing troubles that would plague him for decades. He did not, as we say, make good decisions.
Team-wise, McLain and four other players spent much of the 1971 season trying to get Williams fired. McLain also found time to lose 22 games. The team lost 96, which correctly suggests it was not a suspenseful year.
Marge and I were in the stands for one midsummer game when the PA broke into “Hail to the Chief” and President Richard Nixon sat down to enjoy a few innings. No special reason, he just apparently wanted to see some baseball. Baseball fandom was one of Nixon’s good qualities.
Unfortunately, those were the kind of memories these Senators left. Not, say, championships.
A few years earlier, in the 1950s, the Senators had solid players like outfielder Roy Sievers and leadoff hitter Eddie Yost, known as “the walking man.” It wasn’t enough. The baseball joke still went, “Washington: First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.” They also memorably had a bunch of Cuban pitchers, like Pedro Ramos and Camilo Pascual, and one of those great old eccentric parks, Griffith Stadium. That’s where Mickey Mantle hit his legendary 565-foot home run, underscoring again that the highlights of Washington baseball didn’t always spotlight the Washington team.
I guess I’m just saying that with a few exceptions like Walter Johnson, one of the greatest pitchers ever and the winner of Game 7 of the 1924 World Series, Washington has a ragged history with baseball.
Even the winning run of that one World Series win, historians often note, only scored because a likely double-play ground ball hit a pebble and skipped into left field.
Truth is that Washington’s Negro League team, the Homestead Grays, was often better than the Senators. Often drew more fans, too. The Grays had players like Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, and in the 1940s they won three Negro League World Series titles.
It would really be fun to go back in time and watch the Grays. But right now it’s the Nationals who are in position to write a story good enough that I almost don’t mind their smacking the Dodgers to get here.
I said almost. I still mind. But like Jesus, who might have been talking about many Washington baseball teams when he referred to “the least of these my brethren” (Matthew 25:40), I forgive.