Let’s Get National

I was watching the New York Mets play the Washington Nationals in DC on the 4th of July on one of the ESPN channels. Ostensibly, I was rooting for the Metropolitans, the New York team and all. Yet I developed a certain affection for the team from our nation’s capital because of its long history of adversity.

The city of Washington had a team, first named the Nationals, then the Senators, since the creation of the American League in 1901. The team won a World Series in 1924, and the league pennant in 1925 and 1933, but soon was dubbed as a loser: “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.” The team in the musical “Damn Yankees” that was dealing with the devil in order to try to overtake the title team was the Washington Senators.

Then in 1961, the American League expanded from 8 to 10 teams, in Minnesota and Southern California, but of the two, only Los Angeles got a new team; the Twin Cities got the old Senators and were re-dubbed the Minnesota Twins. And wouldn’t you know it, this team, now in the Midwest, actually became competitive, winning the American League crown in 1965. Meanwhile, the expansion Senators were pretty bad, drew poorly, and moved to Arlington, TX to become the Texas Rangers in 1972, leaving DC with no team at all for over three decades.

Meanwhile, the Montreal Expos were formed in 1969. The team never won a pennant, but they looked to have a lock on the National League crown in 1994 when the baseball strike eliminated the remainder of the season. I went to one home Expos game back in 1992, and I found the stadium forbidding and cold.

Later, the Expos, along with the Twins, were slated for elimination. This does not happen, but the Expos ended up under the operational control of Major League Baseball, which created an awkward situation in that MLB, which regulates the other teams, also OWNS a team. Worse, because they were drawing so poorly in Montreal, they played nearly a third of their “home games” in San Juan, PR for the last couple seasons, which was very difficult for the players.
(Imagine that you have a 6-month job and could be home half the time. That’s much easier than being on the road two-thirds of the time.)
The attendance of 748,550 in 2004 was over 500,000 less than the next lowest team, Tampa Bay.

Then, the team was scheduled to move to DC, but a last-minute move by some members of the Washington city council over funding for a stadium nearly upended the deal.

So, these Washington Nats, 50-32, even after their 5-2 loss to the Mets on Independence Day, lead their division by about 5 games, after being a losing team (67-95) as the Expos last year.

One important factor in the Washington team’s success is manager Frank Robinson. He was a big star for the Cincinnati Reds in the 1950s and early 1960s, where he was Rookie of the Year in 1956 and Most Valuable Player in 1961. The Reds thought Robinson was worn out and traded him to the Baltimore Orioles after the 1965 season; apparently he wasn’t, for he won MVP honors for the season AND for the World Series in 1966. He is one of a handful of players to win the season MVP award in both leagues. Most people don’t realize that he is one of the top half dozen home run hitters of all time, at 586, behind only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, and Willie Mays. (Sammy Sosa may overtake him, as he’s at 583 as of July 4. Many folks thought that Mark McGuire would overtake Aaron, but actually he came up three shy of Frank Robinson’s total, also at 583.)

Robinson became the first black manager in Major League history in 1975 with the Cleveland Indians. (The Indians had the first black ballplayer in the American League, Larry Doby, in 1947, a few weeks after the Dodgers played another Robinson, Jackie, in the National League.) He also managed the Giants and the Orioles before eventually working in the Baseball Commissioner’s office. When MLB took over the Expos for the 2002 season, it asked Frank to manage the team.

So, if the Mets are unable to make up that 9-game deficit and pass every other team in their division, I’ll be rooting for the Washington Nationals, even though I barely know the players, and most of those I know from other teams they played for other than the Expos: Livan Hernandez, Carlos Baerga, Wil Cordero, Junior Spivey, Cristian Guzman and Vinny Castilla. Better them than the tomahawk-choppin’, division-always-winnin’, “America’s-Team”-self-proclaimin’, Turner cable-advantaged Atlanta Braves.