Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Nats Are Coming! The Nats Are Coming!

I grew up in suburban Maryland, just outside of Washington, D.C. When I was a kid, I was a baseball nut, a complete fanatic. (It was my egghead literary Dad who taught me that the word "fan" came from the word "fanatic." I remember feeling pretty smart knowing that.)

I collected baseball cards, mostly the Topps brand, by the hundreds. They came 10 to a pack with a single piece of rectangular rock-hard bubble gum included. The gum wasn't bad--chalky but sweet. I wish I could have said the same about the cards. I mean, the cards were cool, of course; but I never, ever seemed to get Hall-of-Fame-caliber players. I'd drop a buck or so on about 5 packs at a time, eagerly opening them before I was barely a block away from the drug store. I kept looking for Mickey Mantle or Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson or Roberto Clemente. They were never there. Instead, I'd get Pat Corrales or Joe Nuxhall or Tex Clevenger or Don Wert. Or Ryne Duren. Or Bob Sadowski. Or Cal Neeman. Or Pumpsie Green. Sometimes I'd get not one, but two, of the same lousy guy--like Ruben Amaro or Bob Uecker--in the same damn pack. It was frustrating.

But maybe worse than struggling to improve my collection with the greats of the game, was my struggle to obtain the players who were on my favorite team, the hometown Washington Senators. In a word, the Senators sucked. Their rosters, year after year, were filled with mediocrities. Guys like Ed Hobaugh and Coot Veal and Bud Zipfel and Cap Peterson and Ed Stroud and Jim Hannan and Ken Retzer. So why was it that these guys were hardly ever in the Topps packages at my local stores? They were surely as bad as the other lousy guys I always got in abundance from other teams. In fact, they were quite often worse. In the Suck Dept., I'd put Bob Saverine up against Pumpsie Green any day of the week. To the good, Green was actually an interesting card to have: he was the first black man to ever play for the Boston Red Sox. Still, he kinda sucked. If I had to get all that mediocrity in one package, I sure wished I could have gotten the Senators. I'm sure I was too naive to have articulated a conspiracy theory, but after a while I think subconsciously I wondered: Could it be that the Topps folks would deliberately not put Senators guys in my locally distributed packages of baseball cards, because then that would force me to buy more and more packages in search of, say, Don Lock or Chuck Hinton?? Naw, an esteemed manufacturing enterprise like Topps--promoters of America's Favorite Pastime--would never do such a thing... Or would they?? Hmmm....

The only decent strategy I could employ under these circumstances was to hope that I'd get a few Baltimore Orioles guys. The Orioles did not suck in the '60s. In fact, they were pretty good. And the kid down the street, Johnny Eyler, was a huge Orioles fan. I hated that he loved the Orioles. He used to gloat about 'em. And he'd rub it in when the Senators would play the Orioles and get their fannies whipped. The Orioles had Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer and Boog Powell and Paul Blair. The Senators had Buster Narum (an Orioles castoff) and Don Leppert and Tim Cullen and Jim King and washed-up guys like Don Zimmer. However, if I could snag a few Orioles in the Topps packages, they were trade bait with Johnny Eyler, and maybe I could exchange 'em for some Senators cards, which Johnny was usually glad to do if he had any himself.

Baseball cards are a hugely nostalgic thing. And unlike most kids, I didn't have a mother who threw my baseball cards away. A lot of them disappeared from carelessness, but I still have a significant number of 'em. My kids in Chicago, as far as I know, still have the albums I eventually put the cards in. I hope they're safe.

What has spurred on this memory jag is the fact that, after an absence of 34 years, Washington, D.C., is getting another baseball team in 2005. In my youth, I lived through two Senators teams: the original bunch, who played in D.C. through the 1960 season, and then fled West to become the Minnesota Twins; and the expansion Senators, who arrived in 1961, and then fled West to become the Texas Rangers after the 1971 season. This new contingent is yet another renegade squad: They used to be the Montreal Expos. Since 1969, the Expos played major league baseball, not once making it to the World Series. Like the dear old Senators, they mostly sucked too. So I guess there's some justice there. D.C. gets baseball again: Apparently the same crummy caliber it always had in the "old days." But for those of us who loved our hapless old Senators no matter what, it's perfectly okay. Besides, the Nats will be a National League franchise, and that's something different and maybe a harbinger of something new. Happily, the game has changed a lot in 40 years. With free agency, you can build a decent team rapidly. So maybe the new team, dubbed the Nationals (a.k.a. Nats, as they were always colloquially referred to even when they were the Senators), can start to compete at a slightly higher level than, say, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. (Let's shoot low for now.)

The nostalgia trip comes completely full circle, however, with the announcement that the Nats will play their first season in old RFK Stadium. RFK, originally named D.C. Stadium, was first used in the fall of 1961 as the home of the football Washington Redskins. In spring 1962, the Senators made their debut there, having played their inaugural expansion season in old Griffith Stadium. D.C. Stadium became RFK Stadium after the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. RFK was (and apparently still is) a good place to play football and baseball. The new ownership is bringing in groundskeeping and structural experts to get the old joint spruced up and solidified for a season of major league baseball. Those of us who remember the occasional thrills there--the Redskins, of course, had huge success, but so did mammoth Frank Howard hitting towering home runs--are psyched at the prospect of sitting in those seats again.

(Damn, I can buy Washington Nationals baseball cards, can't I? I'm gonna set my sights on a Vinny Castilla card. He's a pretty decent ballplayer and he's set to open the season at third base.)

I've got a special reason to get back into baseball, which is pretty remarkable given the game's steroid scandals and whatnot. Somehow, all of that fades away when I think that I can sit in RFK again and see major league baseball and root for the hometown team.

April's not far off at all. Nation's Capital, here I come.

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