The Story Hall
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The Story Hall

Batter Up! — Bottom of the 6th

Historic Opportunity Missed — But the Game Goes on!

Washington Monument shot by me — this used to be my view leaving work in the evening — my building was right on the National Mall, in the next block over from the Washington Monument.

After that first year in town, when they took us on a wild and crazy ride, playing way above themselves and finding themselves in first place for 2 months, the Washington Nationals did finally settle down to be the team everyone had expected them to be — mediocre at best.

Their farm system of minor league teams, where raw baseball talent gets groomed and made ready for prime-time, was practically non-existent. During the 3 years that Major League Baseball had been running the team, without an owner invested in the team’s future, the once proud, and rich with talent, farm system of the old Montreal Expos had been left to go to seed. There was very little talent left down there “on the farm” to improve the situation on the field at the major league level, with little hope for anything in the near term to improve future prospects of the big league club. For that, they would be dependent on whatever talent the new ownership could draft and bring in to restock that system, and on whatever free agent signings they could coax to come to Washington, DC. Not an easy task.

A replica of Nationals Park

We, the fans, were ready for all of that, seasoned veterans of many a rebuilding team all, especially those who’d followed the two earlier versions of the Washington Senators. They hadn’t had a winning team in decades here, even when they had a team, when the famous slogan, “Washington — first in war, first in peace, last in the American League” had applied for a long time. Then, they hadn’t had a team at all for three and a third decades, 33 long years. So this squad didn’t need to start winning right away for the fans to love them — it took several years before you really started to hear signs of discontent with the losing. Hope sprung eternal in DC. We all knew that one day, this team would win. We just knew it.

Those first few years, though, they always had something to make a fan maintain interest and enjoy coming to the ballpark to watch some live major league baseball, right here in town. Having been raised on National League teams my whole life, first the Pirates then the Phillies, I was so happy that we got a National League team. I had always grudgingly liked the Montreal franchise, how they always seemed to manage to put a competitive team on the field, despite the many disadvantages of playing in Canada. Many a great player had gotten started in that organization, or spent significant time there early in their careers, before going on to greater fame somewhere else. Hall of Famers Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Vladimir Guerrero and two of the most dominant pitchers of a generation, Randy “Big Unit” Johnson and Pedro Martinez, were among those who called Montreal their home early in their careers.

Montreal Expos

They’d usually played in the same division as my teams. I thought they were a proud, if star-crossed franchise. I vividly remembered their greatest season, 1994, when they were clearly the best team in the major leagues, leading their division by a wide margin, with the best record in major league baseball, just a team firing on all cylinders, with everything going its way. That was the season that major league baseball shut down three quarters of the way through the season over labor disagreements, and for the first time in the modern era, did not have a post-season, no World Series to crown a team the world champion.

That season was the Expos’ best shot. By the time the labor agreement got worked out, and play resumed in 1995, they’d lost key players on their roster, mostly to free agency, and would never be quite the same team again. I always thought it was a shame that the DC fans did not embrace the franchise, with its history of great players and competitive teams, and instead acted like the Nationals were the third coming of the Senators. For the poor Expos fans in Montreal, not only had they lost their team, like DC fans had done twice, but by DC’s fans not caring about the team’s history, it was like the Expos just disappeared from the game forever, along with their legacy. That was so not right.

I would have thought that if any fan-base could have empathized with them, and welcomed them into their ranks, it was the DC fans. To this day, I can’t understand why they couldn’t do both — recognize their new team’s history, while marrying it with the previous history of baseball in DC. It struck me as both a missed opportunity, as well as a little bit of a selfish and uncaring attitude towards the disenfranchised Montreal baseball fans.

Alfonao Soriano

But anyway, the big excitement in their second season, 2006, was the free-agent signing of Alfonso Soriano, a hard-hitting second baseman for the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers who’d only signed for one season. The odds of him ever signing for a longer term here were quickly extinguished when he had a run-in with manager Frank Robinson before he ever even showed up to play. Robinson had announced that he’d be deploying Soriano in the outfield instead of second base, to which Soriano’s agent vigorously had him protest, believing his value on the market as an outfielder would be considerably diminished because lots of outfielders had the kind of power numbers he had, while those same numbers put him in the elite ranks of second baseman.

There was some talk about him refusing to play unless the Nats’ manager reversed his decision, but Frank Robinson was not one to back down. Somehow it got worked out, and he came to play. Boy, did he ever play! The numbers he put up that one season he played with us were considerable for anyone, no matter where they played on the field. He had a career year, knocking 46 homeruns out of the park, the most of his career, while also stealing 40+ bases, an extremely rare 40–40 feat. While it is a team sport, that season we got to witness how one player can carry even a shaky team a considerable distance. While they still finished well below the .500 mark, they had won much more than expected. It really was fun to watch a player of such considerable talents in the prime of his career, playing the game with such passion and enthusiasm. Somehow, knowing he would likely only be playing here that one season made it even more compelling to want to be there to see what he would do this game. He rarely disappointed that year.

The third season in town the Nats had a new manager, as they did not renew Frank Robinson’s contract for that year. Many of us were disappointed, as we had grown to really love the old man, who had been the first black manager back in 1975 when he first took the helm as a player-manager for the Cleveland Indians. But, the powers that be thought it was a time for a change. The guy they brought in did a remarkable job with what he had to work with. With Soriano now gone, and the Nats’ prospects diminished at best, the prognosticators were predicting a historically bad season for the Nationals, but their young, new manager had a way of making the most with what he had to work with. They unexpectedly remained relatively competitive on any given day, really surprising the baseball world with their ability to simply not be historically bad. The team had characters, and it had character, and that was good enough for us fans. It remained a delight to go out to the old ballpark to take in a game with this amazing team that still was made up of baseball’s cast-offs and misfits.

The guy who’d been their general manager the first couple years, who was known for finding scraps of talent where others had given up, had seemed to lack a vision for the team’s future, despite constantly making moves that kept them relatively competitive day to day. That year they brought in a guy who had been a part of building a winning dynasty with the Braves in Atlanta, Stan Kasten. You just knew, once Stan was at the helm, that this team was going to be a winner one year soon. He said the right things, and he made the right moves. He was also a gamer.

The year was 2008, and they had moved into their brand new stadium, one that really fit Washington, DC. As a fan, you always tried to find ways to keep your interest in a team that you knew was not going to set the baseball world on fire, on the field. I had read somewhere that back in the early days of the original Washington baseball franchise, the old Nationals/Senators of the early 20th century, a promotional stunt had been pulled off that sounded really cool to me. On August 22nd, 1908, a catcher named Gabby Street was assigned to a spot at the base of the Washington Monument on the National Mall, while the famous pitcher, Walter “Big Train” Johnson, was sent up to the very top of the monument with a baseball.

Walter “Big Train” Johnson

The stunt involved Johnson “pitching” a ball from the top of the monument to the waiting Gabby Street, 555 feet below. It took 15 tries until Street was finally able to catch one of Johnson’s “pitches” from that height. Asked by a reporter whether catching a ball from such a great height hurt his hands, Street quickly replied, “You’ve obviously never caught a pitch from the Big Train at 60 feet, 6 inches”.

I devised a plan to recreate this stunt on the 100th anniversary of the original one. We really needed something to hold our interest that year. The only great thing about that team, that year, was that shiny new ballpark. The team itself had finally fallen to its lousiest mediocrity, and by June it had gotten old saying, “but what a great ballpark”.

I knew people in the National Park Service who I could get to allow us to pull this stunt off. I talked to Stan Kasten about it when I ran into him at a game, and he said, “Sure, that sounds great, as long as Brian (Shneider, the Nationals’ catcher) is game to do it, I’m all for it.” I’d gotten the clearance needed to access the monument for the stunt, and talked to Brian Schneider, and he was game to be the one at the bottom, trying to catch the ball. John Lannan would likely be the one to “pitch” the ball from the top of the monument. My grand plan ground to a halt when Brian Schneider got traded to the New York Mets. The Nationals other catcher, Jesus Flores, didn’t speak very good English, and I didn’t have the heart to start over with trying to convince him to be the guinea pig at the base of the monument. August 22nd came and went, and the Nationals’ most mediocre season continued, unabated. I still went to the games, and still enjoyed everything about the new ballpark — but will never forget that missed opportunity to recreate history. I hate when that happens.

Well, the bottom of the sixth is in the can, so until next inning, take it easy, and if you run into any problems — take them to the ballpark. Everything is always better when you are sitting at the ballpark, taking in the national pastime. Play Ball!

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Hawkeye Pete Egan B.

Hawkeye Pete Egan B.

Connecting the dots. Storytelling helps me to make sense of this world, and of my life. I love writing and reading. Writing is like breathing, for me.