The Long, Complicated Road to Nationals Fever

The New York Times Sports 1 month ago

So, what do you do when your hometown baseball team goes to the World Series for the first time since 1933?

You call your old high school buddy and ask, “Hey, do you still have that baseball that Walter Johnson signed?”

You proudly post a picture of your autographed Frank Howard baseball card on Facebook.

And you wonder, now that the Washington Nationals are up 2-0 in the series, do you hope for a sweep, or do you root for the Houston Astros to win a game because your brother has promised to get you a ticket to Game 5 — if there is one.

This is a dilemma for winners — or rather, for those who root for them.

It’s definitely a new and wonderful feeling for older baseball fans who grew up in D.C., fans who know from humility.

You didn’t know the first incarnation of the Washington Senators, the team that called the nation’s capital home from 1901 to 1960 before high-tailing it to the Midwest to become the Minnesota Twins. That was the club that brought the city its only World Series victory, in 1924, thanks in part to Johnson, one of the game’s best pitchers ever.

No, as a kid you fell in love with the expansion team, the second incarnation of the Senators, who, despite the presence of Howard, the great slugger known as Hondo and The Capital Punisher, and Ted Williams, who managed the team during its last three years in Washington, racked up only one winning season from 1961 and 1971. Then they left to become the Texas Rangers.

Unlike some Washingtonians, you just couldn’t adopt the Baltimore Orioles, and you pretty much lost interest in baseball for more than three decades. You grew up, moved away and went on with life. You were stunned when, after a 34-year hiatus, Major League Baseball finally returned to Washington in 2005, when the Montreal Expos came south.

That first year you went back to R.F.K. Stadium with your father, who had dutifully taken you to a handful of Senators games and even took pictures of you with some of the players on camera day. Through the largess of an old high school friend, you and your brother and another friend have gone to Nationals Park at least once a year to see a game for the last several seasons. You’ve gotten to see some great baseball and even a no-hitter by Max Scherzer. Not the baseball you grew up on.

You were pleasantly surprised when the Nats made it to the playoffs in 2012, and even wrote about it. But when they made it back to the playoffs a number of times after that, something unexpected happened. You actually started to care again.

And with the team’s improbable trip to the World Series this year, you’re somewhat dazed and you’re trying to get your head around this seminal moment. That’s not easy, given Washington’s complicated and sometimes cruel experience with big-league ball.

You remember a game you went to with your family about a half century ago. You were sitting in the bleachers along the third-base line as the Senators took on the Minnesota Twins. Hondo was there, of course. So was Harmon Killebrew, the great Twins hitter who had previously played with the first incarnation of the Senators. And so there, in one game, you saw a bridge of sorts between the two different Senators teams.

Truth be told, you now feel a little bit like an interloper. You haven’t lived in D.C. for decades, and you don’t regularly watch games. But your family still lives there, and that’s where your passion for the game was born. And you’re trying to put this moment in its proper perspective — to give it its due.

You’re getting emails from other joyful former Washingtonians. You’re seeing old friends on Facebook talking about scoring tickets or seeking them. You’re watching old newsreels with pictures of Calvin Coolidge throwing out the first ball at the 1924 World Series.

And you just have to know: What happened to that baseball that Walter Johnson signed and that your buddy’s godfather gave him?

And so you call that friend, who now lives in Western Massachusetts, and you ask him.

He goes into his closet and fumbles around. “While we were talking, I found it,’‘ he reports back, noting that it is still in its plexiglass case. “The problem is, you can’t see his name anymore. It’s just an old baseball now. But Walter Johnson did touch it. So, cool!”

Peter Khoury is an editor on The Times’ Express Team. He finally met his childhood hero, Frank Howard, in 2013.

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