On the afternoon of Wednesday, October 3, at Nationals Park, a life long dream unfolded before my eyes.
In Washington, D.C. a packed ballpark overflowed with joy. As the Nationals completed their regular-season closing 5-1 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, a few folks, including nearly all of the tiny group rooting for the visitors, headed for the exits. Most, including many clad in brand new “2012 East Division Champion” t-shirts stayed and celebrated.
They cheered as the first-place ball club below exchanged high-fives and handshakes to mark their 98th win, ensuring the #1 seed in the National League Playoffs and baseball’s best record. At least for the regular season, a six-month, 162-game examination of stamina and sanity, the Nationals earned the title of baseball’s top team.
The crowd’s standing ovation roared on as each National departed the field and entered the first base dugout. Before folks could stop clapping, whistling, cheering and smiling, the players and coaches, most now clad in red warmup hoodies, reappeared. They jogged around the ballpark, toward the cheering fans. Each flung red curly W t-shirts into the stands.
A moment later, highlights of the 2012 season played on the giant video board above. Between the season’s golden moments, the team’s stars — Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Tyler Clippard, Adam LaRoche and Ian Desmond to name a few — thanked fans for their passionate support of the best baseball team in Washington, D.C. in seven decades.
As the video played, Gio Gonzalez, the 21-game winner and ace of the Washington pitching staff, strode toward the stands in left field imploring fans to cheer louder. He pointed into the stands and shouted, “Thank you! This is for you.”
The crowd responded, chanting, “Gio, Gio” and “Cy Young!” A smiling Gonzalez flung his last few shirts to the adoring fans.
As all memorable moments do, eventually the video ended, the t-shirts ran out, the players left the field, and fans returned home, awaiting the next chapter in the 2012 Nationals remarkable season. The scene marked an unforgettable time of connection and affection between team and town that, just a few seasons ago, seemed a decade away and which detractors claimed, even with a successful team, would never happen.
The journey to that joyful scene, under a warm October sky in the nation’s capital, began to heal a generation-worth of broken promises and dashed dreams. It also silenced a veritable army of naysayers and sloppy, lazy or biased reporters who denigrated D.C. as a “bad baseball town” that could never fall in love with the game or a team, no matter how talented. Last Wednesday and all season long, 2.34 million fans proved them all wrong. But, more importantly, they had been wrong a long time ago, years before baseball returned to Washington in 2005.
Sure, D.C. had two teams move away. The first, after the 1960 season, at the behest of a skinflint, likely racist owner who snapped up the last available western market, following teams from New York (the Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers), Philadelphia (Athletics moved to Kansas City, then Oakland), Boston (Braves to Milwaukee). Only one team, the downtrodden St. Louis Browns, moved east (to Baltimore). Like other cities, fan support had nothing to do with it.
The other reason — white flight — as African-Americans moved to major cities in the northeast in search of decent jobs and to escape Jim Crow — remained unspoken publicly, until Calvin Griffith was dumb enough to allegedly admit it to Thomas Boswell on a bus trip to a World Series game. The old man apparently had no idea Boswell was a reporter for The Washington Post.
In 1971, an in-debt-over-his-head Bob Short moved the Senators to a dust filled minor league stadium outside Dallas, Texas to snap up a sweetheart deal before he lost it all, including his profitable trucking business and empire of radio stations. As he did after purchasing the Minneapolis Lakers years before, moving them to Los Angeles, and selling the team, Short sold the Rangers three years later at a handsome profit large enough to pay off most of his debt.
He cared not a whit for fans. He charged them the highest ticket prices for one of baseball’s worst teams. He let trash pile up in the aisles and under the seats until each home stand ended. The predictable drop in the gate gave Short a convenient excuse, but it was self-inflicted, much as Bob Irsay did in the early 1980s in Baltimore.
Contrary to all the nonsense past and present, the fans cared. They loved baseball, even bad baseball, and longed and worked for its return. I know, because I witnessed the passion first-hand nearly 30 years later. Tom Holster and Jim Hartley, leaders of the Washington Baseball Historical Society, decided, in 1998, to hold a reunion for the 1969 Senators. Rookie manager Ted Williams led that club to a shocking 86-76 record. The best Washington baseball team until this season.
Hartley and Holster booked the Westfields Inn and Conference Center in Chantilly, Virginia. How much did Washington baseball fans remember and care? In less than two weeks, all 500 tickets to the event had sold out, despite the historical society having nothing but word of mouth for marketing.
Fans cared. Deeply. Before the reunion’s main event, a breakfast where folks got to sit at a table with one of the former players and hear a brief speech from Williams, people milled about the Westfields’ lobby, waiting for the locked doors to the dining area, where the 1969 Senators sat, to be opened. One fan said, “I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.”
When hotel workers flung open the doors, people rushed in and glimpsed their former baseball heroes, most for the first time since they were children or teens. Many wept. What they were about to witness and what they had lost overwhelmed them. My own eyes behold this passionate, emotional display for a team that had not set foot on a baseball field for 30 years and for fans who had endured, then, 27 seasons without a team to call their own. From that moment, I never doubted that Washington was, is and will be a town that loves baseball. Deeply.
In sports, wins heal a host of problems and can burst a half-century’s worth of falsehoods. Washingtonians have loved baseball all along. All they needed was, first, a team, second, a club worthy of their affection, and, third, financially stable local ownership committed to making the team good and part of the city’s fabric. As soon as the key piece, a winning team, arrived, their hearts overflowed. That is the biggest victory of the 2012 season, regardless of what the playoffs hold.