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Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and the Rise of the Nationals
By Elliott Smith
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Elliott Smith
All rights reserved.
The Red-Hatted Stepchildren
THE STORY OF THE WASHINGTON NATIONALS BEGINS WITH THE demise of the Montreal Expos, a once proud franchise left in tatters due to contraction rumors, poor ownership, small-market economics, and fan frustration. Montreal had a long and storied baseball history as the Royals, a minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. Jackie Robinson even played there before becoming the first African American player in the majors, but after the Dodgers moved the Royals closer to L.A., the city was without a team.
After considerable efforts from political figures in Montreal and the support of several key votes in Major League Baseball, including Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, the Expos were founded in 1969 as part of MLB's expansion efforts.
Named after the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, or Expo '67 as most people referred to it, the Expos played their games at Jarry Park, a makeshift stadium boosted to MLB capability at the 11th hour. The facility, though, still proved substandard due to its exposure to the elements and its orientation, which often placed the sun directly in the vision of the first baseman. Still, the Expos proved to be a success with the people of Montreal despite a decade of losing teams. Rusty Staub became a cult hero of sorts, earning the nickname "Le Grand Orange" for his red hair.
In 1981, now playing at Olympic Stadium and with a corps of young players, including Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and Tim Wallach, the Expos broke through and earned a playoff berth in the strike-shortened season, only to fall in the National League Championship Series to the Dodgers.
After another fallow period, the Expos of the mid-1990s had some of the best players of the era on their rosters, as Larry Walker, Pedro Martinez, Marquis Grissom, and Moises Alou became stars. But another strike would prove to be the downfall of the franchise. When the 1994 season ended abruptly, the Expos had the best record in baseball at 74–40 and were in line for their first playoff appearance since 1981. But just like that, the season was over, and when baseball started up again, the Expos began jettisoning their best players, much to the dismay of their once-loyal fan base. "They got frustrated with their favorite players leaving every year," Nationals broadcaster and former Expo F.P. Santangelo said. "People didn't want to spend their precious summer days in a decaying stadium."
The team was sold to art dealer Jeffrey Loria in 1999, and after the ownership group failed to replace crumbling Olympic Stadium or negotiate English language TV and radio contracts, the Expos played the majority of their games in a hermetically sealed, increasingly empty dome, becoming an afterthought to most baseball fans.
Baseball's attempts to rectify this increasingly grim situation came in the form of contraction, as the owners voted 28–2 in November 2001 to eliminate two teams: the Expos and the Minnesota Twins. In a fit of fortuitous chair shuffling, John Henry sold the Florida Marlins to Loria, so Henry could acquire the Boston Red Sox, leaving the Expos ownerless until MLB agreed to buy the team for $120 million. But in the case of the Expos, the damage had been done. Loria had moved the entire Montreal front office down to Miami, leaving the Expos with nothing on the verge of the upcoming season.
At this point, contraction would have been a more humane option, but the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, operator of the Metrodome, won an injunction for the Twins to play there in 2002, forcing the owners to abandon their contraction plans for both teams.
During 2002, the Expos' last full season in Montreal, they drew 812,536 — an average of 10,031 fans per game — to Olympic Stadium. Most games, though, looked to have far fewer spectators than those figures, and the team lost approximately $30 million.
A month before the July 31 trading deadline of that 2002 season, general manager Omar Minaya traded prospects Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips to the Cleveland Indians to acquire pitcher Bartolo Colon in an ill-fated attempt to snag a wild-card berth. Although Colon pitched well in his three-month rental, Montreal didn't come close to reaching the playoffs. Each of the players given up by the Expos would become All-Stars, making this one of the most lopsided trades in recent baseball history and crippling the franchise's farm system for years to come, which would have a profound effect on the team's first few years in D.C.
With the growing movement to find the Expos a new home — and Washington, D.C. and the surrounding suburbs becoming a clear favorite — MLB commissioner Bud Selig came up with a new plan. The Expos would play 22 games in 2003 and 2004 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which had hosted MLB's season-opening game in 2001. Hiram Bithorn Stadium, with a capacity of just 20,000, would be the "Los Expos" home venue for select series, as MLB looked to capitalize on the fervent Caribbean baseball audience to help the Expos stay afloat. "We believe these games will generate considerable excitement in Puerto Rico and throughout the Caribbean region," Selig said. "We have attempted to balance the need for home schedule certainty with this opportunity to stage attractive games in a city and region renowned for its production of players and the enthusiasm of its fans."
While it was clear that time was running out on the Expos in Montreal, Washington, D.C. was building steam to get back into the nation's pastime.
THE STORY OF THE WASHINGTON NATIONALS must also encompass the oft-inglorious history of D.C. baseball, which primarily brought misery to the residents of the nation's capital during the off-and-on dalliances the sport had with the city. The first iteration of the Washington Senators, originally known as the Statesmen, formed in 1891 in the American Association before moving to the National League the next season. But when the NL went about its own contraction plans, the hapless Senators were among four teams trimmed from the ledger.
The Senators were back in 1901, becoming one of the American League's charter franchises. But the Senators were uniformly bad. Columnist Charles Dryden perfectly encapsulated the Senators in the classic, withering statement: "Washington: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League."
In 1924, however, the Senators — in a strange turn, the team's owners had changed the name of the franchise to "Nationals" in 1905, but most people still referred to the team as the Senators or "Nats" — won the only World Series in the history of the franchise behind Hall of Fame pitcher Walter "Big Train" Johnson.
In 1933, the Senators captured the AL pennant once again, but lost to the New York Giants in the World Series, beginning a long and dark age for Major League Baseball in D.C. The Senators foundered and became fodder for laughs thanks to their losing way. Case in point: the musical Damn Yankees features the sad sack Senators as the team for which Joe Boyd/Joe Hardy sells his soul. There, however, was good baseball being played in the District.
The Homestead Grays were a flagship franchise in the Negro Leagues, filled with some of the brightest stars of the day, including Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and Buck Leonard. From 1940 until the franchise folded in 1950, it adopted the name of either the Washington Grays or the Washington Homestead Grays and played at Griffith Stadium when the Senators were on road trips, providing a much better brand of baseball and often drawing better crowds than the regular home tenants. The Grays appeared in the Negro League World Series five times, and their 1948 World Series victory would be the last official appearance by a D.C. franchise in the postseason.
On the MLB level, the original Senators began looking for greener pastures, and in 1960, they agreed to move to Minneapolis to become the Minnesota Twins. "Calvin Griffith didn't like the site D.C. picked for the new stadium, because it was in a black neighborhood," said D.C. baseball historian Phil Wood. As the Senators were dragging their feet in adding a black player, so were the Washington Redskins. Griffith had been courted for a number of years by the West Coast. "San Francisco went after the Senators in the early 1950s," Wood said. "They made an overture. But all Calvin could think of was the big earthquake they had 50 years earlier. Minneapolis-St. Paul, which also had gone after the [New York] Giants, put together a sweetheart deal. He left because he could leave, and Minneapolis offered him pretty much anything he wanted."
It didn't hurt that the Twin Cities had a largely white demographic. "I'll tell you why we came to Minnesota," Griffith said. "It was when I found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don't go to ball games, but they'll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it'll scare you to death. It's unbelievable. We came here because you've got good, hardworking, white people here."
That move, however, also ensured that D.C. would receive an expansion team, and so, the 1961 season kicked off with the "new" Washington Senators, an entirely different franchise from the previous one. According to Wood, MLB was concerned about the Continental League, a new baseball league being formed under the aegis of former Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey. The goal of the Continental League was to get another team back in New York, though the powers behind the league also wanted to establish teams in territories without an MLB presence. Minneapolis-St. Paul was one of those locations, but when the Senators moved there, MLB acted quickly to quash the threat by announcing two expansion teams in each league. Those teams would become the New York Mets, Houston Colt .45s, Los Angeles Angels, and Senators.
It's hard to imagine, but the new Senators were worse than their predecessor. Shaky ownership plagued the franchise from the very beginning, and the team never acquired the necessary players to even come close to contending.
Slugger Frank Howard did his best to entertain the rapidly dwindling fans at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, launching mammoth home runs into the empty upper deck, but there was very little else to cheer about. "They'd tease you a little bit," Wood said. "In 1967 after 116 games, they'd won and were 58–58. They came home, and it was variously described as hundreds of people waiting to greet them at the airport. It was a defining moment. What would we do if we had a contender? By end of the season, they were nine games under and tied for sixth place with the Orioles."
There were only a couple of brief highlights during the Senators' second run in D.C., one being Hall of Fame hitter Ted Williams taking over as manager in 1969. "Teddy Ballgame," the last man to hit .400 and a Boston Red Sox legend, was an inspired but surprising choice to be named skipper, given that he had shown no inclination to return to baseball since he retired in 1960.
Senators owner Bob Short, however, sensing an opportunity to get any kind of publicity for his ragtag squad, made Williams an offer he couldn't refuse — a five-year contract package worth more than $1.5 million. That kind of money was unheard of at the time. Williams also received a stock option and a chance to purchase more — up to 10 percent — of the club. He was named vice president and had a clause in his contract that he could quit but not be fired.
The hiring of the game's best hitter put a spotlight on the Senators that had never been as bright, and even the publicity-averse Williams handled his new role as ambassador/coach with aplomb. "He brought a lot of attention to the club, nationally," Wood said. "There were always network sportscasting crews in spring training. Williams had been out of the game for a number of years and didn't really know any of the players of the team. He could be irascible. But there was something about when he walked into the room. There was an aura about him. It was a daily thrill just to see him in a uniform with 'Senators' across the front."
Although the talent Williams had on hand as a rookie skipper was downright anemic, he somehow wrangled the wretched Senators to respectability, leading the squad to an 86–76 mark — the only winning record during the franchise's time in D.C. "The players had great things to say about Williams as a hitting instructor," Wood said. "In terms of strategy, however, it was Nellie Fox who was in charge of that. He knew when to play small ball, what to do when a power hitter was at bat."
Williams also inadvertently changed an important part of the baseball process, requiring that his team get a brief respite before reporters could enter the clubhouse after a game. "It used to be as soon as game ended, reporters could go right into the clubhouse. Williams said, 'We need a 15-minute cooling off period.' Now, that's standard," Wood said. "You can't get right in. So he was maybe a little ahead of his time.
"I think he enjoyed being in the limelight a little bit, but he would never would tip his cap or acknowledge any applause. That wore off after 1969. After that first year, he lost interest and the players kind of reverted to form."
With the Baltimore Orioles blossoming into a perennial playoff and World Series contender, the Senators drifted into irrelevance, and Short fell deeper into debt, making him increasingly receptive to the siren call of other cities looking to poach an MLB team. And on September 21, 1971, owners agreed to let Short move the team to Arlington, Texas, where they would become the Texas Rangers. "It was a great deal," Wood said. "[Dallas-Fort Worth was] offering [Short] 10 years of broadcast revenue up front — roughly $7.5 million. The money would be his to keep, so he moved to Texas, and about three years later, he sold the team. He made out real well."
But D.C. fans had the last word, turning the Senators' last game at RFK into a near riot by storming the field in the ninth inning and stealing souvenirs. The umpires were forced to award the New York Yankees the game in a forfeit, an inglorious — but perhaps fitting — end to baseball's turbulent and unsuccessful years in the nation's capital.
The ensuing years were relatively quiet, with dissatisfied teams occasionally using D.C. to gain leverage in their stadium talks. Most fans in the D.C. and Virginia area drifted to the Orioles, who slowly took over the market. "In 1972 the Orioles bought a few billboards around D.C. that showed Boog Powell following through on his swing that said, 'Take a short drive to see a long drive.' But in '72 with no team in Washington, the Orioles' attendance went down," Wood said. "It didn't catch on. Part of the reason, from my perspective, was that O's used to come to D.C. and beat our brains out.
"It took until 1979, when Edward Bennett Williams bought the O's, for it to click in. Fans in D.C. thought Williams was going to move the team here. Fans in Baltimore thought the same thing, but they were drawing more fans from Baltimore. The Orioles had never drawn more than 2 million, but it took 10 years after Senators left to do so."
So when Selig posited moving the Expos to Washington, there was one man standing in the way of making the move happen — Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
Since 1972, Angelos' Orioles held the Baltimore-Washington market to themselves, and he considered a new team in D.C. a major affront to his domain, despite the fact that the Senators and Orioles had shared the population just fine in the past. "It was a situation where [MLB] had no place else to go, where there was a park that had 40,000 seats, parking, and people clamoring to write them big checks," Wood said. "So they worked out a deal with Angelos, where he would own no less than 67 percent of the TV rights. They gave him $75 million to get it started. Those were the roots of [Mid-Atlantic Sports Network] MASN. People thought it was, 'I'll do this and I won't sue you.' That's not true, but Angelos was a litigious guy, and he wouldn't have hesitated to get a temporary restraining order."
Excerpted from Beltway Boys by Elliott Smith. Copyright © 2013 Elliott Smith. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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