My father lived with a special kind of agony: that of a superfan who has been abandoned by his team not once, but twice.
He grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and was a passionate fan of the Washington Senators baseball team. Even late in his life, he could still reel off the starting lineup of the 1945 season, the only year in his memory when the Senators were almost good. But only almost. That year, they scratched out an 87-67 record, a real stunner for a team that spent most of the time well under .500, often well under .400.
The Senators had been good briefly in the mid-1920s, when they won their only World Series title, beating the New York Giants in seven games. That 1924 series wrapped up with a nail-biting 4-3 win by Washington in the 12th inning.
They reached the World Series one other time, in 1933, but the Giants got their revenge, topping the Senators in five games.
But all that was years before my father was born. With a few rare exceptions, such as 1945 and 1952 and ’53, when the team barely eked out .500 records, the Senators were woeful. At their nadir of that era, 1949, the Senators posted an astonishingly futile 50-104 record, just .325. It was the worst year for the team since 1909, when they went .276, with a 47-110 record.
It was not for nothing that Washington D.C. was often said to be “First in War, First in Peace, and Last in the American League.”
Yet my father loved them with a fierce devotion. He would listen on the radio late into the night, keeping score on a notepad.
And then, in 1960, the Senators deserted him.
After a typically lackluster season, 73-81, the Senators moved to Minneapolis to become the Minnesota Twins (after flirting with moving to San Francisco in 1957).
His heartbreak was intense but short-lived. The league quickly awarded D.C. a new franchise, also known as the Senators, to start in the 1961 season.
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The results were underwhelming. For the next decade, the team dawdled in the .300s and .400s, hitting a dizzying .531 in 1969 but otherwise pretty much stinking up the place.
And then they were gone again. After a dismal 63-96 season in 1971, the team packed up for the booming Dallas region to become the Texas Rangers.
I was almost 5 then. My father was just beginning to work on instilling in me the same kind of passion for baseball that he had as a child. I dimly remember his sullen disappointment. He packed away his memorabilia, and it remained hidden until his death more than 40 years later.
He refused to attend baseball games in nearby Baltimore, since he blamed the owners of the Orioles for blocking any hope of another expansion team in D.C.
He did develop a brief blast of enthusiasm when the city of Alexandria, Virginia got a single-A ball team known as the Dukes, who played at a diamond on a disused city school. He dusted off his notebooks and taught me to keep score, while he carefully explained subtle aspects of the game, like the logic of putting a base-stealer at the top of the lineup or the silent negotiation between pitcher and catcher before a throw.
But even the Dukes left him after a few years, moving to a new stadium in another city so they could get the beer license that the Alexandria school board refused to approve at their old facility.
Washington’s extended baseball drought did finally end, when the Montreal Expos left Canada and came to D.C. to become the Washington Nationals (a name occasionally used by the original Senators in their early decades). I think my dad was wary of the team at first – they weren’t HIS D.C. team – but eventually he warmed up to them and in his final years, he’d attend games now and then in the Nationals’ gleaming new ballpark not far from his home in Southeast D.C.
The Nationals came too late for me. My wife and I left the city in 2001, and since then I’ve flirted with teams closest to whatever passed for home at the time – the Dodgers, the Phillies, and lately the Giants.
I was glad for my friends and family back in the D.C. area that they got to root for a real championship team this year – as plucky, lucky and fun to watch as the unlikely Giants team in 2010 that won the World Series (over the Rangers, as it turns out). I suspect my father would have thoroughly enjoyed seeing the first World Series win in D.C. in nearly a century.
I enjoyed watching the series this year, but I felt conflicted. I am glad for D.C. and the Nationals, but I can’t help but recall the emotional scars my father carried from losing the Senators. There must be so many like him now in Montreal.