December 3, 2023

On Becoming National League Champions in 2019

October 17, 2019 by · 4 Comments 

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.



4 Responses to “On Becoming National League Champions in 2019”
  1. James Camacho says:

    Mr. Leavengood,

    I recently read an excerpt from the pitching book you co-wrote with Dick Bosman that was published in March 2018. It had unflattering and ill conceived commentary by Mr. Bosman about my late father, Joe Camacho, concerning his tenure as Bench Coach with the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers from 1969 to 1972. It was curious to read unflattering commentary concerning my dad’s ability to coach and teach baseball from Mr. Bosman BEFORE my dad even arrived to spring training in his first year as bench coach in 1969. My dad would have to help invent this position as there never had been a bench coach in baseball until he arrived; not an easy task. The ill conception of the comments is very curious in a book about teaching, teaching pitching in particular, because it overlooks the fact that my dad was in fact an educator for 23 years holding a Masters Degree in Education earned in 1962 as a National Honor Society member. My dad taught as much baseball after his playing days and prior to his entry as a Major League coach, at the same levels and along the same paths, as Dick Bosman did prior to his ascension to coaching in the Major Leagues after his playing days. The only difference, and it is as written by Mr. Bosman in the book, is that my dad did not play or have experience in a Major League baseball dugout. Sadly, Mr. Bosman and others forgot to look up the road to Baltimore during those times and contemplate that another person was very successful that did not have any Major League playing and initial coaching experience. His name was Earl Weaver and his lack of Major League playing or “dugout” experience was no handicap to his baseball knowledge, ability or success to teach the game to the Orioles and neither did it hamper my dad in Washington. Contemporaneously, it has not hurt Joe Madden, a pretty fair baseball coach/manager in his own right with no Major League playing experience beyond minor league “A” ball! Better research or inquiry into these simple facts would have painted a more complex, textured and interesting educational story about Joe Camacho becoming the first bench coach in baseball history along with seeing the difficulties he confronted in that new position, and used his educational background to adapt to the new position as Mr. Bosman adapted as a pitching coach inventing the slide step, under the circumstances in Washington and Texas.

  2. Ted Leavengood says:

    The folks who gather around the old Senators teams are a strange lot. SO much wind, so little carry. talk to Dick, don’t use this site or a totally unrelated article to whine about something that many people have said over the years. Dick is not the first. Your father’s relationship with Ted Williams was based on a boy’s camp where your father worked with Ted. The critics have questioned whether that was adequate qualification for working at a high level in a Major League clubhouse. Ted was criticized for choosing your father not just by Dick Bosman, but by many, many others. So why fill this space with your complaints? Put on your big boy pants and go talk to Dick.

  3. Ken Voytek says:

    Thank you for writing this. It is an arc for you. From the work documenting the first season of the nascent Nationals to bring it around to an old Senators and those in between, the recent, and the long past You should be commended as a chronicler of the Washington BB world. Well done.

  4. Ted Leavengood says:

    Thanks, Ken. Those big Johnsons, the redneck omelettes, and all that great stuff from the first few spring training visits: talking to proud player parents, Michael Burgess at the batting cages, you refusing to come on the field to pose as my photographer when I had a field pass, me getting dissed big time by Pat Corales. Having the Braves fan base on my ass. So many great memories. Fifteen seasons of baseball writing. I am going to miss it.

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