Feel It! The Heart of a Good Baseball Town is Beating Once Again
Baseball is part of the historic and cultural mosaic. You cannot unwind it from the larger picture and in Washington, DC, the rebirth of baseball’s winning tradition here is intertwined with a larger transformation taking place all across the length and breadth of this city, our nation’s capital.
There have always been tourists tramping around on the National Mall as they head from one museum or monument to another. But trying to fit in a Major League ballgame? Yes, it happens frequently now as Nationals Park has become a popular attraction, like the Washington Monument was once an attraction for baseball players trying to catch a ball thrown from its top windows.
Parts of Washington are buzzing like they have not in many a decade and one of them is the old neighborhood where baseball was once king, the Shaw Neighborhood around old Griffith Stadium. Once there was a World Series Champion playing there and the neighborhood around it sang and laughed with more life than many others. Shaw was home to the Harlem Renaissance. The Howard Theater was home to Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. And winning baseball was just down the street. Can you believe it?
That once proud neighborhood and the city as a whole became pigeon-holed somewhere behind Detroit and Newark as perennial urban pariahs where disinvestment and white flight were buzzards feeding on the carcass of a confident metropolis. For those that don’t get out much, that vision has taken flight. There is a wide and deep resurgence that has taken root in DC. That old Griffith Stadium magic is back and inner city communities like Shaw have come home too.
Like many American cities, Washington was scarred by riots that burned a swath across the face of the city in the late 1960’s. Old Griffith Stadium was not far from 14th street, but that arterial that bustled with night life and exuberance was reduced to a burned out shell in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It stayed that way through the 70’s and 80’s.
Then sometime after the millennium a change began to take hold in DC. Baseball came back and across the city more signs of rebirth were evident. After almost a decade you can see it nowhere more starkly than in Shaw–now buzzing with hipsters and young parents with strollers heading for Whole Foods or folks in their finest going into the newly refurbished Howard Theater for a Gospel Brunch on Sunday. There is even a country club on H Street in Northeast DC where soon a new trolley line will deposit the patrons.
That’s right. Washington, DC is a winner. Look at the baseball team. Can you believe it? It has been almost eight decades since DC had any kind of league pennant flying above the city. The 1933 Washington Nationals were the last AL Champs and it went downhill quickly from there. But now the new Washington Nationals are the NL East Champs and there is buzz that there may be a World Series coming to town sometime in the future, maybe even this fall.
Who’d a thunk it even eight or nine years ago? Baseball left the city in 1960 and again in 1971 behind rumors that the city was just no good for baseball—whatever that really meant? Find an old guy in a barber shop and they could tell you the story about Bob Short the no-good scoundrel that left the city high and dry, and the nation’s capital without a major league team for the first time since 1901. Of course he had help. Calvin Griffith and Joe Cronin shoehorned the team out, but that is another story for another time.
The point of this story is that we’re back. The old timers have to pinch themselves to be certain it’s really happening, but Major League Baseball has this city buzzing in 2013. You can almost hear the Duke himself, the picture of elegance as he performed before the home crowd along T Street. And when you are on Half Street this spring, heading towards the Centerfield Gate at Nationals Park, close your eyes for just a second and you can see the ball as it hops over Freddy Linstrom’s shoulder back in the ninth inning of the last game of the ’24 Series.
The words are on everybody’s lips: “World Series,” they are saying and maybe not softly enough. But lofty goals have their own rewards, especially when they are so widely shared. Whether it is principal owner Mark Lerner or the homeless out in Montgomery County, they are talking about a World Series coming to DC in 2013.
Young players like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg have set these lofty goals. Strasburg wants to throw 200 innings in 2013 for the first time. While Harper keeps his 2013 slugging goals close to the vest, you know they are there.
Expectations are sky high and that’s a good thing. It’s what brought seven thousand fans to NatsFest at the DC Civic Center in January, long before the ball that will become the first pitch on April 1 has even been stitched. It is heart-warming to see all of the kids taking part in the festivities, all of the youngsters getting their first cuts as Washington baseball fans. These kids are going to be to be Nats fans for a long, long time and that is a beautiful thing.
Winning is contagious and it is spreading across this city from the Shaw neighborhood to the banks of the Anacostia, where the lights of Nationals Park gleam like some glorious comet streaking across the night sky. To its fans baseball is always a beautiful thing, but it can reach out and touch almost everyone when a winning team is playing it in the capital of a great nation.