A fan's observations on the Washington Nationals, from across the virtual divide.

Teddy: A Sign of the Times

Marketing has never been a particular strong suit for the Nationals, but The Rushmores, also known as the “Racing Presidents” were an instant success back when they were introduced in 2006. When it comes to fan entertainment at baseball games, the mid-game mascot race, whether you’re talking about variety meats, dinner pastry or presidents, is not particularly new. In a town where national monuments are part of the social fabric, The Rushmores are a perfect match for Washington.

Back when I was in college, one of the first big projects I worked on in communication was a criticism project where we listened to the stories of the employees, and made sense of their narrative using something called Fantasy Theme Analysis. The idea here is that when you talk to people in an organization, they recount their stories using metaphor, as a way to add depth to the example. For instance, an employee might talk about always putting out fires – an indication that someone in the organization is always first to step up, be the hero, but in a reactive way. He or she is responding to crises, rather than showing strategic leadership. Pick your fairy tale or two, and there’s an organization that matches it – whether you’re talking about nurturing parents, authoritarian ship captains or calculating villains. The story-teller uses these metaphors as a way to describe the context in which he or she understands their organization’s culture.

If you were to ask a long-time Washingtonian about the history of sports in the city, it would be the tale of institutionalized, long-term mediocrity. The Senators have their World Series in 1924, but when people talk about it, the narrative is more about how exceptional that event was – Washington’s only World Series. Damn Yankees is the literary parable that memorializes the lovable loser. The Washington Generals are the perpetual foil of the Harlem Globetrotters. The Washington Capitals are holders of numerous milestones of mediocrity, including the worst regular season record ever, and no Stanley Cup Championships in their thirty-five year history. Even the Redskins, with three Super Bowl wins and two NFL championships  in their history, have become more about the hype and preparation, and less about winning. I would even suggest that the Redskins get more and better media exposure when they lose than when they win; a disincentive to winning for a team that is so successful in its merchandising.

Despite our history and culture, Washingtonians certainly have an appetite for winning teams. When the Nats made their improbable run in the first half of 2005, RFK was packed every game. The Caps recent success has filled The Phone Booth. The Redskins sellouts of today were built on “The Future Is Now” philosophy of George Allen. But Washingtonian sports culture has an excuse and tolerance for losing, to the point of accepting it as destiny.

Culture doesn’t change overnight, and it often takes generations. But while mediocrity might feel like destiny, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. Joe Gibbs proved that (the first time).

Fairy tales are morality plays we use to teach our values. Which brings me back to Teddy. The Rushmores are the Nats’ fairy tale. They would be cute, even if all of the presidents won from time to time. But the current narrative, where Teddy loses every race, resonates with us because Teddy has become a metaphor for the Nationals. We see ourselves as Washington sports fans in the results of every race. The narrative is protected and continued because there’s a sense that if Teddy were to win, the joke would be over, and if the joke is over, what does that mean for Teddy and the other presidents - and what does it mean for the Nats? The problem is, every time Teddy loses, he reinforces the stereotype of Washington sports as the laughing stock of the nation.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not advocating that we “Let Teddy Win.” It isn’t as simple as staging a win for Teddy, and suddenly the Nationals fortunes will be reversed. What I am suggesting is that we reject the mindset that it is acceptable that Teddy lose every race. In a world where we stop placing value in the Washington sports stereotype, the perpetual loser Teddy ceases to be the compelling character that he is.

I’ve been to nine Nationals games this season. Teddy has lost all nine of those Presidents Races. The Nats have lost eight of those game. Coincidence? Perhaps… but less than you might imagine.

If we start thinking about Sports in Washington, and the Presidents Race differently, is that the end of the joke? Perhaps. But what it needs to be is the end of the Washington Senators, and Washington sports in general, as the iconic model of what the Nationals should be.

So the catchphrase shouldn’t be “Let Teddy Win.”

It should be “Free Teddy. Free the Nationals.”

The Case For Hondo

Filed under: Fan Experience,Organization — Tags: , , , , — Wigi @ 1:06 pm December 5, 2008

This is one of those things that seems, on the surface, for which there should be universal support – and certainly, in my head, that is how I feel. As evidence, I direct you to the planetnj online petition – hondo.planetnj.net. Mike Henderson also has a Facebook ’cause’ you can register with to show your support – Bring Hondo Home!

All of this started, thanks to Dave Sheinin’s post in Nationals Journal, where he informed the world that Frank Howard is no longer employed by the Yankees… and then advocated that the Nats hire him.

What a grand idea! Howard would link Senators history to the Nationals, who are admittedly struggling on the team culture front. I was a kid in the 70′s and Hondo was my hero. I even carried a 36 ounce bat, just because I saw myself as Hondo when I played ball. I could barely lift it, much less swing it. On opening day in 2005, I sat in the upper deck of RFK just above the left field foul pole as Howard took the field, and then handed his position to Brad Wilkerson.

Tears streamed from my eyes as I watched the Senators take the field that night, and surrender their positions to the Nats players… and then the Nats went on to win that night and start an amazingly magical season. It was a great way to bridge 34 years of empty summers in Washginton.

Frank Howard was the hero, and the face of baseball in Washginton for an entire generation of baseball fans. He needs to be a part of baseball in Washington once again.

But there’s a problem with all of this. The rationale for hiring Hondo is almost entirely an emotional one – at least from the perspective of the fans.

Comments in Nationals Journal yesterday were monolithic. Everyone wants Howard back. But what would he do? Quite a few Nationals Journal readers commented that it would be great to see him “. . . in a Nationals uniform.” But that is unlikely. Certainly there is room for him as a scout. But in some respects, that defeats (at least some of) the purpose of having him in the organization in the first place – the fans want to see him. Scouts rarely get to chill in the home park – and this is what made Howard valuable to the Yankees. Howard lives in Loudon County, and could head up to Camden Yards to scout the Yankees upcoming opponents. He certainly wasn’t a fixture at Yankee Stadium. I am sure he was at Nationals Park quite a bit more often.

In some respects, Hondo’s sudden availability poses some problems for the Nats. The “Lerners are Cheap” crowd would argue that the organization is unwilling to commit money to anything worthwhile, including Frank Howard’s salary. But clearly this isn’t the case – I think it would be safe to say that the fanfare over Howard’s hiring would generate enough revenue in season ticket sales to cover whatever it might cost the Nats in salary. It isn’t a revenue issue. But if you remember, it also wasn’t a revenue issue with Frank Robinson. The Nats seemed ready to retain Robinson in some semi-ceremonial capacity – one with a salary – but without any real responsibility. This wasn’t what Robinson wanted. While nobody has suggested that Hondo would feel the same way, it should be a real concern for the Nats. And not to take anything away from Frank Robinson, but Robinson is an icon of baseball history and tradition, while Hondo is an icon from our history and tradition. Getting this right – assuming it happens – is important.

The fans seemingly universal craving for adding Howard to the organization hints an important nutritional deficiency in the Nationals’ organizational diet: the need to connect deeply to Washington and its baseball traditions. Clearly, hiring Hondo does that. But it needs to be done in a way that respects and celebrates Howard’s talents and all that he meant (and still means) to Washington baseball fans.

So what would be the proper position for Frank Howard? One where his efforts make a real contribution to what happens on the field. After all, in addition to his greatness on the field, he has coached, managed and scouted (among other things), and this will be his 50th year in baseball. And second, but almost as important, kids of all ages should be able to walk into Nationals Park, and know that there’s a chance that when they stand in line for a half smoke, they might be standing next to “The Capital Punisher”.

Hire him for his baseball skills and knowledge. Celebrate him for what he did for baseball in Washington, and all he meant for Washington baseball fans.

(and by the way, sign the petition!)

Holding a Grudge

Do you remember where you were on the evening of September 30, 1971?

If you do, then you know exactly why today is an important day in Washington baseball history.

I remember where I was on that night – I was in my room, with my transistor radio, listening to the last Senators game ever. I was ten years old. They left town. I’ve never forgiven them.

“They” were so embarrassed by the shabby and thoughtless way they treated me and the thousands of other Senators fans that they left behind, that they had to change their name. Now they’re known as the Texas Rangers. And they’re coming to Washington tonight, after 37 years, pretending like nothing happened.

Bastards.

What’s wrong with them? Do they think that ten year old kids just forget about being left to fend for themselves to complete their discovery of baseball?

At some point when I was in my early 20′s, and I was mobile enough to make rather frequent trips to Memorial Stadium to watch the Orioles, I realized that the Senators moving to Texas had made a huge difference in my life. When I was a kid, I remember carrying my transistor radio around while my mother was grocery shopping, listening to spring training games on the radio, and at the same time wishing that the thermometer would inch up to 50 degrees. I didn’t go anywhere in the summer without my baseball glove, and there was a certain rhythm and routine to my day, that always ended in a baseball game, or a game of catch. Televised games were a rarity back then, but my childhood schedule revolved around those televised games, and of course, I would listen on the radio whenever I could.

When I was a kid, trips to RFK Stadium were relatively rare – perhaps two or three a season. I remember my first game as if it were yesterday, and I remember being in awe of the incredible green that was the inside of RFK Stadium. I remember watching sitting in the mezzanine with my mom and dad and two brothers on a Sunday afternoon against the Yankees. I remember the last opening day, where the Senators shut out the Oakland A’s, 8-0.

That night in late September, as the Senators took the lead against the Yankees, I was thrilled. I remember thinking that perhaps something would change, and the Senators would stay after all. I remember Frank Howard hitting that home run, and listening to the crowd roar on the radio. I remember the chaos as the fans twice stormed onto the field. I remember the Senators led 7-5, but the official final score was a 9-0 loss by forfeit.

There was no spring in 1972. Add to that, the renaissance of the Redskins and the tenure of George Allen, and the transformation of a baseball fan into a football fan had begun. I no longer carried my baseball glove with me in the summers. I think I went to a baseball game at Memorial Stadium that next year, for “Safety Patrol Day”, but I can’t even remember who played, or any of the details of the game. As great as the Orioles were then they weren’t ‘my’ team, and they weren’t going to take the place of the Senators in my heart. And I tried to find love for the Rangers, but there was something definitely wrong with trying to love someone/something that had abandoned you.

It wasn’t like my love for baseball died, but I have often wondered how my life would have been different if baseball had been a bigger part of my youth – or at least, the part after 1971. Instead of getting dusty and dirty at the diamond, I hung out at the swimming pool. Who knows what other forms of juvenile delinquency might have been avoided if we’d only had a local baseball team?

When the Expos moved to Washington at the end of 2004, I was caught by surprise at how strongly I reacted to the news. And while most of my family still lives in the Washington Area, I live in Alaska, and lead a decidedly un-east-coast existence. But I have made room in my life, and in my heart for the Nationals, and I follow them as closely as I might if I lived in Silver Spring, rather than Anchorage. Heck, it’s only June, and I’ve already seen them in person six times this season (I am 6-0 in games I’ve attended this year… are you paying attention, Stan?).

So tonight, I am faced with the homecoming 37 years in the making – the night that the Senators return to Washington. Admittedly, these are not the same Senators that left in 1971; ownership has changed hands at least a couple times. I couldn’t be bothered by the exact details. What matters is, it is them. They are the ones that abandoned me, and abandoned Washington.

We might not have realized it, but we suffered those 33 seasons without baseball. A whole generation of Washingtonians never got to know what Washington Baseball was all about. Girl at work (June 19, 2008 at 4:30 PM) had it exactly right. Bad baseball is better than no baseball, and thirty-three years of being told that black-and-orange was more than good enough for us… was simply not good enough. And while there are a lot of people who feel anger and animosity towards Peter Angelos for preventing the relocation of baseball to Washington for so long, it is time we remembered how we got to that situation in the first place.

I wish I could be there.

I would boo. I would root against them as hard as I could. I would bring signs to the game. I would think of caustic things to say. I would hope that 30,000 of my fellow fans will feel the same way, but was I said above, Washington is a generation removed from the Senators, and for some, memory is mercifully short.

I hope we kick their ass,  9-0 in each game. I hope they beg to get out of town on Sunday. Seeing them again in Washington in six years will be too soon.

Don’t let the door hit you in the ass when you leave.