As I sit in the stands of Nationals Park during this magical season, I think back to that day 41 years ago, when the baseball team of my youth, the Washington Senators, was whisked out of town. The Nationals mischievously rouse this bittersweet memory, beginning every game with a video that shows the Senators being transformed into the Nationals, the hulking old RFK Stadium swapped with the airy new gem of a park, and the old slugger Frank Howard replaced by Nats third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, set to patriotic music composed for a John Adams miniseries. Tears have been known to flow on fans of a certain age.
The Nationals brought baseball back to Washington in 2005, and after a number of miserable seasons and miraculous draft picks, this year won the National League’s Eastern Division and recorded the best record in Major League Baseball. They have been the anti-Red Sox, all harmony and chemistry. They are managed by Davey Johnson, best remembered in Boston for having helmed the Mets when they defeated the Red Sox in 1986.
But put aside the player storylines — pitcher Stephen Strasburg’s stellar 159 ⅓ innings before being shut down for the season, shortstop Ian Desmond’s break-out performance, and Gio Gonzalez’s bid to win the Cy Young award — and you have a tale that I’m sure is shared by countless fans. A tale that began that day 41 years ago.
On that day, when I was 14, I put aside a part of my youth. I had listened to Senators games for years on my portable radio. I had gone to games at RFK Stadium, sitting in the upper-deck seats where Howard sometimes sent his monstrous drives. The future had seemed bright. In 1969, the Senators had hired none other than former Red Sox star Ted Williams as their manager. I bought Williams’s book, “The Science of Hitting,” and hoped that it did more good for the Senators than it did for me. I obtained a prized copy of a Senators program with a smiling Teddy Ballgame on the cover, with a headline that said: “Welcome back to baseball.”
Things were good for a year or two. Then, one day, Washington awoke to the news that the team would move to Texas. Fans stormed the field before the final game was over, resulting in a forfeit.
Baseball, such an integral part of life, was over for many Washingtonians. I put away the program with Williams’s smiling face. Into the attic eaves went the souvenir from Bat Day and a manila folder stuffed with sheaves of paper signed by many Senators. Baseball, it seemed, was part of a pattern in Washington. Trust was tattered. The owner said he wanted the team to stay and then it left. It seemed to fit neatly in a narrative of the early 1970s, between Vietnam and Watergate.
For 15 years, I barely watched baseball. Then, one day in 1986, I was living in Boston, and felt myself being drawn into a magical baseball season. For much of that year, I heard fans lament how Boston had not won a World Series since 1918. My response was always the same. At least you have a baseball team. At least no one took it away from you. Then, I obtained two tickets along the first base line at Fenway Park. A Red Sox pitcher with the best nickname ever, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd, struck out the side in the ninth inning, and Marty Barrett drove in the winning run in the bottom half of the frame.
It felt as if I had never left the game. That season, of course, ended in misery at Shea Stadium, but my love affair with the game had been renewed. I followed the Sox faithfully and, when I moved to Washington, became an Orioles fan. But the heartbreak of the Senators’ departure was always there; the sports pages of The Washington Post were regularly filled with stories about fruitless efforts to bring baseball back.
Then, much to our amazement, it happened. The Montreal Expos became the Nationals. The city built a ballpark along the banks of Washington’s lesser-known river, the Anacostia, with views of the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Mudville was no more as Washingtonians joyfully rediscovered the national pastime.
Recently, I dug out the keepsakes I had gathered as a Senators fan. To my surprise, I had written two words on that manila folder: “Go Nats.” I had forgotten that was the nickname of the Senators, which had helped inspire the shortened appellation of the current team. I picked up the old program, with Ted Williams still smiling at me, and his words finally rang true. Baseball really is back in Washington, and so, too, is a piece of our childhood.