Saturday, October 23, 2010

Nats Win! Nats Win! (Sort Of): Rangers Offer Redemption for Aging Senators Fans

My brother Steve has a baleful saying: “We’re gonna die just in time...” It is his commentary on being a certain advanced age—older than 40, at least—while experiencing the absurdist, wrongheaded and presumably irretrievably corrupt sociopolitical state of the world in general and the U.S. in particular. In other words, things are so bad that death looks good.

Normally, I agree with this deliciously cynical observation. Except now that the Texas Rangers have made it to their first World Series, I’m going to have to pray for a definite reprieve. (Dear Lord, get me through at least to Nov. 1, after the World Series is over...)

No, it didn’t happen the way it could have, but there’s a twisted kind of joy that can be experienced now by anyone, like me, who, in the 1960s, rooted seriously for, and lived and died with, the Washington Senators, one of the worst baseball teams in history, but a team with an interesting, if somewhat offbeat, pedigree, and who, as of this morning, are the champions of the American League.

Quick history: Following the 1960 baseball season, Calvin Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, longtime league doormat, took his team and moved them to Minnesota, where they became the Twins, and, just five years later, made it to the World Series, led by former Senators like Harmon Killebrew and Zoilo Versalles and Bob Allison.

In the wake of Griffith’s cruelty to longtime Senators fans, and in acknowledgment that it’s best not to piss off the political types in the nation’s capital, the American League granted Washington a new franchise, an expansion team made up of castoffs from everywhere else, plus marginal minor league prospects and fading demi-stars.

The expansion Senators, colloquially known as the “Nats”—borrowed from an old nickname, the Nationals, and easier on the newspaper headlines, e.g., “NATS LOSE AGAIN”—were terrible. You could look it up. Myself and thousands of local D.C.-area kids rooted for ’em, and so did foolish grown men and women.

Each of their first four years, the new Senators lost at least 100 games. Then they improved slightly when the late Gil Hodges took over as manager. He didn’t exactly spin gold out of straw, but Hodges took a very mediocre talent pool and squeezed some life out of them. They never hit the .500 W-L mark, but they were especially fun to watch in 1967, after which Hodges went to the Mets and won them a legendary World Series in 1969.

Meanwhile, the Senators tanked in 1968 under former outfielder and local fan favorite Jim Lemon, who didn’t get a second season at the helm, because new team owner Bob Short had the brilliant idea to recruit the great Ted Williams as manager. Ol’ Teddy Ballgame, full of piss and vinegar, came to D.C., and showed a somewhat talented club how to be better, how to draw more walks, how to choose pitches carefully, and flat-out how to get better results at the plate.

Eureka! Career ciphers like good-fielding shortstop Ed Brinkman batted .266 with 153 hits. Unreal. Free-swinging first baseman Mike Epstein hit 30 home runs. Wow. The wonderfully freakish Frank Howard hit a career-high 48 homers and actually drew 102 walks, and for the first time in his career did NOT strike out 100 times.

Williams handled a rather patchwork pitching staff pretty well also, and the team finished 86-76. What might be a disappointing season for other teams was near Nirvana for us Senators fans. Oh happy day!

Nothing lasts forever, of course. And in Washington baseball lore, nothing apparently lasts for more than even one season. Team owner Short started making bad trades, and the Williams magic wore off quickly. By 1971, when the team was trying to make reclamation projects out of pitcher Denny McLain and outfielder Curt Flood—both of them baseball bad boys, but for very different reasons—fans had a disaster on their hands, to the tune of a 63-96 record. A team batting average of .230 said it all. So did McLain’s 10-22 W-L record. So did the unruly mob that interrupted the final game at RFK Stadium, forcing the Senators into forfeiting to the Yankees. Ugly.

The near-riot was evoked by Short’s announcement that he was moving the team to Texas, where they began life as the Rangers for the 1972 season. Nothing like getting slapped in the face hard twice in 11 years. Bye-bye baseball in D.C. Again.

Yet this is where it all comes full circle. Though the Rangers struggled for years, they actually got pretty respectable, and in the ’90s made fairly regular appearances in the playoffs, though greater success always eluded them.

Now the Rangers/Senators have defeated the Yankees, and they are going to the World Series. What little kid in Washington, D.C., in the ’60s could ever dream that the lineage of Coot Veal, Don Lock, Fred Valentine, Bob Saverine, Willie Tasby, Dave Stenhouse, Marty Keough, Jim Hannan, Chuck Cottier and Paul Casanova could ever lead to offspring Vladimir Guerrero, Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Cliff Lee and a journeyman pitcher named Colby Lewis, who prior to this season’s mediocre 12-13 record had a career record of 12-15 and had spent the past two years prior to 2010 playing in Japan? Yet Lewis shut the Yanks down twice in the ALCS with a 1.98 ERA—and that smacks truly of destiny.

(Colby, with those regular-season numbers, you might’ve been a Washington Senator once upon a time. Now, you are the MAN!)

So go Rangers!! Go old Senators!! Maybe there is, after all, redemption. Or something somewhat close to it. If only we live long enough to experience it.

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