Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Take Me Out to the Ballgame

The last local baseball game Linda Kelster attended was a day-night doubleheader between the Washington Senators and Detroit Tigers. With each game reaping a total of three runs, “it was a real snoozer,” she recalls.

Now, 35 years later, the lifelong Senators fan from Rosslyn, Va., is in the stands of the Washington Nationals’ first-ever game at RFK Stadium. “It’s just so nice to have baseball back,” she says. “We love baseball.”

One seat to her left, watching the Nationals rally against the ets with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, is Kelster’s nine-year-old granddaughter. At the crack of the bat, Marley jumps up and belts out with all the energy she can muster: “Let’s go Nationals, let’s go!”

It’s been more than a generation since the District has had a baseball team to call its own. In 1971, the storied but struggling Washington Senators celebrated their 70th birthday by moving to Texas, and the nation’s capital and ninth largest city was devoid of professional baseball.

The beginning of the end had come 16 years earlier when the newly-arrived Baltimore Orioles rode their prosperity to a split of Washington’s fan base. Then, in 1961, plagued with anemic attendance, the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins.

Their replacement – technically a new franchise with new management but nevertheless bearing the same moniker – was the first expansion team in the history of Major League Baseball. Its celebrity managers, ranging from Ted Williams to Gil Hodges, led players with 40-home-run seasons and 21-strikeout games, but only one of the team’s 11 seasons ended with a winning record.

The Senators’ final game came on September 30, 1971. With two outs in the top of the ninth inning and a 7-5 lead over the New York Yankees, hundreds of fans ran onto the field. The franchise’s history ended in chaos – and a forfeit.

Now, RFK Stadium, originally called D.C. Stadium when it was built in 1961, is as sparklingly clean and well-kept as ever. The grass is green, the paint is fresh and a quartet of giant outfield signs bears photos of local monuments and the team’s stars. In the middle stands a proud, capitalized “Washington Nationals” in bright red lettering.

Of course, a few tweaks here and there would never hurt. “They definitely need to work out the sound system,” Kelster remarks, later adding, “We stood in two lines that ran out of food.”

“They could use a little more music,” Matt Pohl of Austin, Texas, says. “It gets quiet at times.”

Sean Burton of Alexandria, Va., is a bit more forgiving. “They’ve got a lot of kinks to work out,” he says, “but I think they’re doing a pretty good job for just four months [of preparation].”

Indeed, the April 3 charity exhibition game against the New York ets could well be seen as a dress rehearsal for the Nats’ home opener on April 14. Not until Sept. 29, 2004, did Major League Baseball announce that D.C. had been chosen over various competitors – including Las Vegas, San Juan and northern Virginia – as the new home of the floundering Montreal Expos.

Another major hurdle would be cleared three months later. Amid various D.C. groups’ protests against public financing in the construction of a new Anacostia stadium, city government amended the contract that had seemed to guarantee the Expos’ move to Washington.

The deal Mayor Anthony A. Williams had negotiated with Major League Baseball was suddenly in danger. Baseball officials threatened to move the team somewhere else. But a week later, by a dangerously slim 7-6 margin, the D.C. Council voted to approve the original deal.

The Nationals were saved, and city politicians heard their share of boos upon their introduction before Sunday’s game. eanwhile, had the Nationals not taken the field, Williams’ ovation would have been the afternoon’s largest.

Chris and Susan Valdez of Waldorf, Md., brought their three children to the game. “[Susan] bought this hat for me before [the negotiations were] settled,” Chris remembers, “and I thought it was going to become a collector’s item.”

Luckily for the fans of Washington, D.C., the crisis was settled. And now, two kinds of baseball fans can be found in the D.C. area: those who envision the Nationals as a reincarnation of the old Senators and those unaffiliated souls who welcome the Nats as their new favorite baseball team.

Burton belongs to the former. “I’ve been waiting about 34 years for this,” he says. “Baseball left when I was one. Ever since there was a rumor they’d be coming back, I waited with bated breath.”

Then there are those fans – many of them Georgetown students – for whom the Washington Nationals mark the beginning of a newfound interest in baseball.

Pohl, for one, has “no ties anywhere, so I think I’m going to pick up the Nationals as my new team.”

“[The Nationals] bring a sense of imminent history with them, the hope that comes with the founding of any major institution,” Eden Schiffmann (COL ’08), a native of Bethesda, Md., says. “The new team is a bandwagon that anybody can jump on.”

They’re fans for whom Brad Wilkerson, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, and Livan Hernandez are on the verge of stardom, even if the team is miles away from an impressive win-loss record.

“The Nats’ chances? They have none,” Mike Stewart (COL ’08), a Philadelphia native, acknolwedges. “The division is just too good, and they’ve been stuck in purgatory in Montreal, where they couldn’t shell out the cash for all the great players who have come through the system.”

“But having baseball back in D.C. is important,” he adds, “and while in the long run the Phillies will always be the superior franchise, this is a team that will be able to contend not too far down the road.”

One might argue that Washington baseball hasn’t truly contended in 80 years. The Senators’ last – and only – World Series victory came in 1924 with ace Walter Johnson, widely considered baseball’s greatest pitcher, leading the fight.

But it was a magical Series. With the heavily-favored Giants leading Game 7, 3-1, in the bottom of the eighth, Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom booted a grounder and allowed the Senators to tie. The stalemate continued to the 12th inning, when two more Giants errors propelled the winning run across home plate.

Now in 2005, the Nats are the team to which much of Georgetown clings. There are, of course exceptions, especially where home loyalties remain.

“To be honest, to no extent will they be my team,” Ketan Bhalla (SFS ’07) admits, “especially since I’ve been a Mets fan all my life, and they’re in the same division. . For the sake of the Mets, I hope they don’t do well, but it will be nice to see the Mets up close and personal when they play at RFK.”

However, for most of the D.C. area, Thursday’s homecoming game will carry the joy of a presidential inauguration – without the partisan squabbling. And on Sunday, the fans were hungry enough to boo third baseman Vinny Castilla for failing to hustle on a ground ball.

Burton brought his wife Marisa to the game. “He’s been like a little kid,” she says of her husband. “He’s had a smile on his face for the last.” Her voice fading away into deep thought, she then declares, “It’s about time.”

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