Last night I had the pleasure of going to a game lost by the Washington Nationals. And, of course, the reason was that in the middle of the 9th inning, we found out that the Pittsburgh Pirates had beaten the second place Atlanta Braves which meant the Nationals had won the National League East.
I am one of those people born in Washington DC and lived in the area all my life. I still have fond memories of my father taking me to see the hapless Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium. For those who never went, Griffith Stadium was sort-of a mirror image of Fenway Park in Boston. Washington’s ‘Green Monster’ was in right field, not like Fenway’s left field one. The other difference was that Washington’s team was ALWAYS terrible and the crowd’s fairly small.
There are too many memories from those times to recount here. I remember that my father almost always would buy peanuts outside the stadium at half-price. He had a talent, which I never have been able to duplicate of putting two of his fingers, one from each hand, into the sides of his mouth and making the loudest whistle I have ever heard since then. I cannot remember whether I enjoyed that whistling at the time or was embarrassed by it, but now I only remember it fondly.
Players like Eddie Yost at third base, Roy Sievers at first, Jim Lemon in left field, and pitchers like Chuck Stobbs and Pedro Ramos I randomly recall. When they became good enough, they were moved to Minneapolis where they won a pennant.
I used to listen to Senators games late at night on a pocket radio under my bed covers when I was supposed to be asleep. I would bargain with God indicating that if the Senators would win just that one game I was listening to; I would be nice to my sister and in general be a better person. They never won. And thus much of my life is explained by my desperate rooting for the Washington Senators.
In 1961 a new team came to town, the expansion Senators with new heroes like Frank Howard, and briefly Tom Chaney; though with the same terrible results. Howard’s homeruns were so enormous, that they painted the seats white where the balls landed in the outfield. I found out when the newest incarnation of a Washington baseball team, the Nationals, started playing in RFK Stadium that an over-diligent staff person when repainting the seats, painted over all of the Howard specific seats too. Somehow that seemed appropriate.
A group of high school friends decide that famous players like Frank Howard didn’t need a fan club so we picked a rookie catcher Mike Brumley, who was the 1964 Topps All-Star Rookie catcher (I believe he was the only rookie catcher that year) to start a fan club around. We used to walk around the stadium and chant “B-R-U-M-L-E-Y, Brumley, Brumley, he’s our guy. M-I-K-E, Mike, Mike, Mike”. We were booed.
We decided to have a birthday party for him which was particularly nice since he had been doing so poorly he had been benched by then manager Gil Hodges. Charlie Brotman, the publicity guy for the Senators, talked us into having the party before the game started since he was afraid what the crowd would do. Brumley actually teared up when we gave him his birthday cake.
The next game Brumley started he had a double and a homerun and won the game. Russ White, a wonderful sports writer for the Washington Star who had wandered by our birthday celebration and had some cake, wrote an article about how the fan club rooting for Mike had evidently had a big impact. When interviewed Brumley said the reason he hit better was he changed his stance.
Regardless, this team left also, moving to Arlington Texas and getting better there like the Twins did.
And finally and hopefully for the last time in my lifetime, Washington received a third major league baseball team, this time a National League team. I had never rooted for a National League team before, but the lack of a DH is a strong incentive to continue to do so. The first six months when the team was actually in first place was remarkable, though they ended up finishing around .500 for the year and then slumped to multiple 100-loss seasons.
Over the last few years under the leadership of their Manager, Davey Johnson, General Manager Mike Rizzo, and at the direction of the owners, the Lerner family, the team has steadily gotten better. This last year, the season ticket group I organize all agreed at the beginning of the season that they had a chance to make the playoffs as a wildcard team, especially now that Major League Baseball had added a second wildcard.
Instead the Nationals have had the best record in baseball almost the entire season and as I started this write-up clinched first place in the National League East Division last night. In some ways the game we attended where they clinched making the playoffs had a more dramatic impact for me but last night was really wonderful to experience.
The Nationals seem to have a truly close-knit emotionally tight organization; from the top to the bottom. No whiners or head-cases, no clubhouse poison, just a bunch of men playing what should be a kid’s sport. One that even I did when young, though poorly (I learned that you cannot get many hits when you swing with your eyes closed).
After all those years and all those memories, next week I get to go to a baseball playoff game for the first time in my life. Many thanks to all of the National team and management and especially to the Lerner’s who brought the game back to the Nation’s Capital, put the stadium in downtown where all professional sports should be played, and have built a team to last.
I have learned over the years that organizations take on the character of the people at the top, Ted and Mark Lerner should be very proud.