Sports Nut

No New Senators

Don’t let Washington, D.C., muck up another baseball team.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

Of all our sports, baseball is the one worst afflicted with the curse of literary dilettantes. Once upon a time, slumming poets, or historians on a busman’s holiday, would gravitate toward boxing, where they would at least adopt the outward rituals of the milieu—to wit, they would scratch and spit and, occasionally, like that splendid omadhaun Ernest Hemingway, take one in the bazoo to complete the experience. Or the littèrateur would drift off to the track, rhapsodize about some thoroughbred, get skunked on free bourbon, and give back some of the money he’d made peddling his masterpiece to Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner.

Boxing and horse racing—pace Seabiscuit—are all but dead, so the attention of the intellectual, fancy classes descended upon baseball, and it has lain there atop the poor beast like a 60-pound dung blanket ever since. I mean, Lord save us. How many more books can be written about the Brooklyn Dodgers? At least the Dodgers had the good sense to flee from this plague of librarians. Up here in Boston, our poor snakebitten Red Sox are regularly beset by enough Harvard professors to start a small Southeast Asian war. It is with all this in mind that I beg Major League Baseball not to lose what’s left of its senses and give Washington another team for the city to ignore. The endless flocks of lightweight Beltway harpies that would descend on the team—”Hey, Bob, let’s go down in the stands and talk to George Stephanopoulos”—in short order would render that team the most insufferable sports experience not involving George Will. Except that it likely would involve George Will.

A bit of history: Our nation’s capital is not merely a lousy baseball town; it is a staggeringly lousy baseball town. The first Washington Senators stunk at their beginnings and stunk when they blew town for Minneapolis in 1961. In between, they were owned by the Griffiths, Clark père and Calvin fils. Calvin managed the not-inconsiderable feat of making his old man look good. He eventually came to blame his bad team’s bad attendance on the fact that Washington’s largely African-American fan base declined to patronize his ball club, even though those same fans turned out in droves to watch the Negro Leagues play at Griffith’s Griffith Stadium.

Almost unbelievably, Major League Baseball awarded Washington another franchise immediately upon Griffith’s departure for the more Caucasian heartland. Senators, Part Deux, played in Washington for 10 years, never got closer than within 15 games of a pennant, had Ted Freaking Williams for a manager for its last three seasons, and failed so resoundingly that, in 1971, after drawing only 7.3 million fans over its entire decade in the District, the team decamped to Texas, where it became known as the Rangers. (One more bit of history, of course, is that the Rangers eventually became the principals in a greasy bit of land-grabbing that enriched a certain failed oilman enough that he started a political career that now has him living in a large metropolitan area that has no Major League Baseball.)

The arguments that Washington deserves a third chance to fail as a baseball town come down to the facts that a) the city’s been played for suckers by MLB several times over the past 30 years and b) our Nation’s Capital must and shall be represented in our National Pastime. These are, of course, absurd. Major League Baseball plays every city without a franchise for a sucker. It’s one of the major pleasures of having an exemption from the nation’s antitrust laws. As to the second, well, Washington already is represented in our National Pastime. It has the Redskins.

Nevertheless, the nattering has begun again. The Montreal Expos—wards of the House of Selig that they are—likely will be moving, and there’s a call to move them to Washington or, at least, to Northern Virginia. This latter is a dead giveaway. A move to Northern Virginia—which hasn’t been the capital of anything since Lee surrendered—is all about sweetheart stadium deals and pacifying Peter Angelos, the obstreperous incompetent who owns the Baltimore Orioles and who is said to be opposed to any new baseball team in Washington itself. Not only that, but a team in Northern Virginia is a tacit acknowledgement of Calvin Griffith’s odious notion that black Washington either cannot or will not support a Major League Baseball team. In recent weeks, both the Northern Virginia proposal, and a proposal from a group based in Washington proper, mercifully have begun to come apart for a number of reasons.

Moreover, please God, any team but the Expos. They are a geographically diverse team, and now they play—largely unnoticed, granted—in a delightfully cosmopolitan city. They have players for whom any team would gladly bid high; even injured, Vladimir Guerrero is no worse than one of the three most compelling players to watch in all of baseball, and Jose Vidro is a rock at second base, and pitcher Javier Vazquez would be an ornament to any team, including the one in Oakland. These players are so good that MLB found itself in a terrible pickle. It couldn’t trade any of them from MLB’s Montreal branch office to any contending team, lest MLB be seen as unduly influencing the outcome of a demi-pennant race. In which case, Bud Selig might have had to suspend himself for life.

Why take this wonderful mosaic of a team and drop it into a provincial swamp like Washington—a place where Sally Quinn is an arbiter of style, Tim Russert an arbiter of wisdom, and in which Larry King and Don Imus are considered wits. (To cop a line from Christopher Hitchens, both men are half-right.) It would be such a dreadful waste. Luckily, there is an alternative. There’s a capital city just dying for a team like the Expos. The players would be comfortable there, and the people would fill the park to its rafters. Of course, there would have to be a certain amount of regime change involved, but that gets more likely by the day, and it probably would take less fuss than building that new ballpark in Texas did. If they wanted to, the Expos could wave to all the sad-faced pundits and pundettes as the team flew over Washington, winging its way to its new and most appropriate home.

In Havana.