November 12, 2019

On Becoming National League Champions in 2019

October 17, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

Victor Robles squeezes the ball into his glove as the man next to me shouts, “It’s an out, baby, it’s an out,” and the stadium erupts into pure animal joy. As the fireworks erupt and the fans explode, the center field gate swings open and a makeshift stage begins to move toward the infield as though it is a leaf being carried by ants across a smooth stream of emerald green. The players convulse in ecstasy near the mound, anointing themselves with Gatorade, but they seem to know that the ants are coming for them and everyone on the field–except the dejected Cardinal players leaving heads down–moves toward this newly erected, shared center of attention.

Joyous fans move toward the railing for a better view and the players and team personnel all congregate near the stage finally assembled by the nameless ants. Along the railing a ditzy blond gets her Ken Doll boy friend to take picture after picture of her with the still-to-come proceedings in the back ground. Men in suits parade up the aisle from the pricey seats as though they have somewhere more important to be. But no one cares. The cops on the other side of the netting are smiling and several come over to talk to some fans. The joy of a city long deprived spreads from its core now gathering in center field.

The players parade up the stairs and everyone waits to see who is going to say the first word. A man no one recognizes but looks very official takes the microphone and with the air of impersonal officialdom, begins to introduce the dignitaries. The team owners speak, but it is only when the man who built the team takes the microphone, General Manager Mike Rizzo, that anyone actually strains to hear the words. He says the obligatory things, but something has happened and suddenly they take on real meaning as though the events on the field so recently ended, have waved a wand across everything, and now, finally, the stuffed rabbit has been made real.

Rizzo thanks the scouts who labored on fields across the country to identify the talent and helped assemble the winning entourage grinning madly around him. Five other teams passed when given the chance to take Anthony Rendon with the first pick in the 2011 Rule Four draft. Rizzo’s minions jumped when the others demurred. The Padres were uncertain about Trea Turner’s real talent, but Rizzo’s scouts had none of those misgivings and now he is one of the most sure-handed, offensively gifted shortstops in the game. They believed Anibal Sanchez still had it. The player development staff still saw a spark in Michael A. Taylor and convinced him to try just one more thing. All of the grizzled old veterans who travel to games played on the most obscure diamonds of America, their visions came together on this special night; all the believing and all of the hard work by everyone.

The players did it themselves, Rizzo says. And those true words echo loudly with the fans who have listened intently, but now shout their approval. These are their players, like your Uncle Tony’s favorite friend from college who shows up at Christmas enough times to become real family. These players may leave for other cities and more money, but they will always be family. Players leave home. They do that. But leaving home is perilous and that is what Washington has become for them all, everyone of the players standing together for the official photograph that captures this singular moment. This is where they had their time of fireworks and champagne. They will remember that moment and their names will be etched nowhere more brightly than here in our record books.

There are other names that decorate this field. Walter Johnson, Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris, Goose Goslin, Frank Howard. Some of the players standing on the makeshift stage will join them at the end of their playing days. Max Scherzer, who paced the dugout throughout the game like the madman he is, driven to the edge by an insatiable competitive fire; his name will be there etched by all the memories of this day. Stephen Strasburg is likely to have his own spot regardless whether in Cooperstown or not. The letters will spell out his many years here in Washington, DC. And others, they too will find their greatest adulation here; where they can walk into any pub and the regulars will trip over themselves to grab the bill before the player can.

Anthony Williams was the mayor of Washington, DC in the spring of 1999, when the Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals played an exhibition game at old RFK Stadium. In the pregame ceremonies, Williams suggested that soon there would be a team playing for Washington as a major league team, and it could well be those Montreal Expos, or some other team that moved from a city that did not treasure its team enough. Six years later he was the captain aboard ship when the city council approved the final bond authority to build Nationals Park and cemented the move of those Expos to DC. His name–Mayor Anthony Williams–should be there as well, joining Scherzer and Strasburg and those others from this team whose names will endure.

This moment is the realization of that vision, when finally everyone can accept what was so long denied.

The old racist Calvin Griffith wanted this team moved out of the city, to the white suburbs, and when his wish was denied he took the Old Fox’s team to Minnesota. And eleven years later, he and Robert Short smiled in delight as the other American League owners voted in favor of the motion to move the team again, this time to Texas. “Washington is too black for baseball,” Short said. “The city is crime riddled,” he opined, as one reason for the poor attendance. And one by one the other owners in the American League came to believe him.

The pundits are only allowed to see Washington as the heir to the baseball legacy of Montreal, Canada, an international city of great repute that has been rent by its own history of turmoil. They refuse to see the pennants flying atop Nationals Park that announce the American League Championships of 1924, 1925, and 1933. All of these naysayers are scattered to the dark corners of time by the new banner, the one that reads, “National League Champions, 2019.”

And now there will be a World Series in a city that once celebrated it all in 1924, when citizens from every corner of the city gathered along Pennsylvania Avenue not to welcome a president newly elected, but to crown Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris, and Walter Johnson as kings after their victory over John McGraw, “Little Napoleon,” and his New York Giants. It will happen again. Maybe not this year. Maybe not in my lifetime, but it will happen. And then all will be forgiven and forgotten. Washington, DC will rejoin the baseball pantheon and its years of wandering in the wilderness will be forgotten. And maybe then Shoeless Joe will be voted into the Hall of Fame along with Marvin Miller. And then, finally, all will be as it should be, forever and forever.

Postscript: Apologies to Sam Rice, Hall of Fame right fielder for the Washington Nationals, who deserves mention above.


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