"Washington—first in war, first in peace, and last in the
A century has passed since sportswriter Charlie Dryden penned that immortal
parody about the old Washington Senators, and still baseball fans in the
nation's capital suffer. The only difference is that the new Washington
Nationals are now in the National League and clawed their way up to fourth
place last summer, one slot above the cellar.
Historically, the one thing grimmer than sitting for three hours in
Washington's trademark summer humidity was watching the team on the field. Of
course, the diehards will tell you that there is one thing even
worse—not having any baseball at all, an affliction the city endured for
more than 30 years.
Real oldtimers will recall that the Senators, the team Dryden first
covered, managed to win just three pennants and one World Series (in 1924)
from its birth in 1901 until the team shuffled off to become the Minnesota
Twins in 1961.
Some claim that the best baseball played in Washington over that stretch
came at the hands of the Homestead Grays of the negro leagues. Nominally based
in Pittsburgh, the Grays used D.C.'s Griffith Stadium as a second home field,
where fans could watch legendary sluggers like josh Gibson and Buck Leonard
power the team to nine Negro National League pennants in the 1930s and
The new Washington Nationals' baseball stadium, which stands on the
banks of the Anacostia River, keeps fans close to the field and features
reminders of the greater Washington experience—cherry trees like those
near the Lincoln Memorial and a pentagonal home plate.
Washington Nationals/HOK Sport, architects
A second Senators franchise in the 1960s lasted only 10 years before it too
left town in 1971 and morphed into the Texas Rangers, a team with its own
problematic history. Attendance was low for both incarnations of the Senators,
because performance on the field was so miserable and management was so
unwilling to market the team.
It was enough to make selling your soul to the devil in exchange for a
pennant look attractive, as the authors of the show "Damn yankees"
During the ensuing drought, fans and local politicians moaned about the
lack of a hometown team. Members of Congress rumbled about rescinding major
league baseball's antitrust exemption. Desperate for a fix, baseball junkies
made the trek up I-95 to Baltimore to see the orioles play, a fine alternative
in the late 1970s and early 1980s but less aesthetically attractive over the
Eventually, baseball's failure to take root in Montreal turned that city's
expos—who sometimes seemed to have more people in the dugouts than in
the stands—into the new Washington Nationals before the start of the
For a while that year, hope bloomed like the cherry blossoms in spring, as
the Nats got off to a 52-36 start under manager Frank Robinson, good for first
place in the National League East. The team seemed to find a new way to win
each night. Come-from-behind victories became standard. Even the most cynical
lobbyist came to see the concrete confines of RFK Stadium as a field of
But like the cherry blossoms, the team's performance dropped off, tanking
to an 81-81 season record and last place in the division. The nats have been
in relapse ever since.
Yet baseball is a sport where hope is renewed every year. Spring training
has an amnesiac effect, gently excising memories of the previous year's
failings. The slate is wiped clean. Old players depart over the winter, new
ones arrive, and possibilities abound.
Nats' general manager Jim Bowden spent this winter rebuilding the club. He
picked up catcher Paul LoDuca, who hits well and calls a solid game, and
infielder Aaron Boone, a veteran who may bring some stability and direction to
In December he traded 13-year team veteran catcher Brian Schneider and
outfielder Ryan Church to the New York Mets for 22-year-old outfielder and rap
singer Lastings Milledge.
A few days later, Bowden swapped a minor league pitcher for Elijah Dukes, a
23-year-old outfielder with a rap sheet longer than Milledge's rap song.
Bowden and second-year manager Manny Acta concede that Dukes is a project, but
that with close guidance, his talents on the field may overshadow his past
lapses of judgment off it.
The Nationals have another asset not readily available to most teams. Many
of the people living in the Washington area grew up somewhere else and retain
loyalties to their old hometown teams. They fill seats that might go
unoccupied while the Nats build their local fan base.
The Nationals have been building more than a roster.
Nationals Park, the team's new home, sits one mile south of the U.S.
Capitol along Washington's developing Anacostia River waterfront, with views
of the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
The stadium is now a construction site, but city and team officials
promised that it would be ready at the time this issue went to press.
Nationals Park will feature the asymmetrical design and multiple angles common
to many new parks. The 41,222 seats are subtly oriented toward the infield,
and half are accessible from street level, thanks to a field set 24 feet below
Of course, those will be for regular fans. The lobbyists and fatcats will
get to entertain clients and congresspersons in luxury suites named for
Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.
Whether a new home will inspire this year's nationals to greater
achievement on the field remains to be seen, but it may not matter. New
stadiums always draw crowds, and these crowds have waited long enough to
Information on the Washington Nationals is posted at<http://nationals.mlb.com>.▪