Of Three Forlorn Springs

June 11,1925: Washington’s only World Series banner for 95-years was raised.
The eclectic hoisting crew (from L-R) Senator Frederick Gillett of Massachusetts,
John Heydler President of the National League,
Ty Cobb of the visiting Detroit Tigers, Clark Griffith, Bucky Harris, and
Commissioner of Baseball Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis
Photo Courtesy of Laura Peebles

There is an unmistakable pattern to Washington Sport fandom: Seasons start with scant illusions of success.   This is not a recent development.  An old saw was that Washington was, “First in War, first in Peace, and last in the American League.”  It was only the slightest of exaggerations.  In the early years of the 20th century the baseball club had a penchant for finishing near the bottom of the eight-team league.  In 1923 the Yankees opened their new palace Yankee Stadium giving Babe Ruth a short porch with which to make Home Run history.  Washington’s answer was for Majority Owner Clark Griffith to re-name “Nationals Park” after himself. New York romped to the pennant with a 16-game margin.  Washington was mired some 23.5 games behind.  Despite Griffith’s efforts to improve the team over the offseason, nothing materialized.  The prospects for 1924 were, at most, dismal. Sound familiar?

Griffith’s Folly

Clark Griffith’s franchise, the Nationals, was out-manned by nearly every team in the league. Although referenced as “Senators” the formal name of the team was “Nationals.”  Sports writers found the Nationals name to be presumptuous and so applied the name of the contracted 19th century National League team, “Senators.”  The unofficial name stuck until it became official in 1957. Regardless of moniker, in the spring of 1924 this was a franchise mired a long way from pay dirt.   

Bucky Harris, the unlikely Manager of the 1924 Champion Nationals. With the team moved to Minnesota some 64 years ago Harris still remains the winningest manager in franchise history with 1336 wins despite an overall losing record.

Griffith was implored by many to re-take the reins and manage the club himself.  Since he had taken over as majority owner Clark had fired four managers in four years.  He spent the winter asking a fair number of people to take the job including Ed Barrow, the Hall-of-Fame General Manager of the Yankees.  All refused. 

“I’ll take that job and win Washington’s first American League Pennant.”

Bucky Harris

Making matters worse, his only star player, one Walter Johnson informed Griffith he was retiring after the season.  Johnson pitched the incomprehensible total of 110 complete-game shutouts.  Given modern baseball this is one record that will probably remain standing far over the horizon  But, Johnson only had one “No-hitter.”  It came on July 1, 1920 against Boston.  His arm had not been right since.  The fastball lost its late movement.  Despite an improved 1923, Walter wanted to give it one last go then retreat to his farm. 

The “Big Train” 6’1″ Walter Johnson. He arrived on the mound in the ninth inning of a tied Game 7 allowing nary a run over three innings. Long considered the best hurler in baseball he finally became a Series’ hero.

Desperate to solve his managerial problem Clark Griffith turned to the last place anyone imagined; his 27 year-old Second Baseman.  Bucky Harris was in Tampa awaiting Spring Training.  Griffith had sent him there early to help condition the field.  With trade rumors swirling Harris became convinced he had been traded to the Yankees. 

When the telegram from Washington arrived to his amazement it was an offer to manage from the Boss.  His reply wire is startling considering the backdrop: “I’ll take that job and win Washington’s first American League Pennant.”  Harris was either in touch with the baseball gods, had bumped his head, or was just a hopeless optimist.  Sports writers were predicting the team to battle Boston for the basement spot.  Harris was perceived by them as a bit of a dolt. They quickly dubbed the hiring, “Griffith’s Folly.”  

“Go 1-0 Today”

In the spring of 2019 the biggest question for the Washington Nationals was the date of second-year Manager Davey Martinez’ firing.  Certainly there were office pools.  Washington brashly burst onto the scene in 2012 upsetting Braves’ Nation who considered the division their own.  The years between were punctuated with gut-wrenching post-season losses after glorious winning regular seasons.  Opportunities in 2016 and 2017 were squandered by Dusty Baker’s lack of post-season tactical acumen.   Martinez’ rookie season was a decided drop-off.  It ended barely over .500 at 82-80. The young manager was considered by many to be overmatched.  Giving him a second year, with the window of opportunity closing against a stripped-bare farm system induced spasms among much of the fanbase. 

At long last Washington had another Championship, and a ring for the champions.

The year started badly.  After fifty games the record was famously 19-31.  Beat writers and columnists share a common attribute: They ghoulishly adore firings of Managers and Head Coaches.  Days on-end of speculation fill story lines while generating sales and clicks.  Martinez had his toes over open water at the end of the gang plank in May.  Daily he would come into pressers spewing optimism.  His new mantra was, “Let’s go 1-0 today,” The media members looked at each other incredulously.  This guy, several of them have said, was thought to be clueless.  But, then the wins started coming.  In August Davey developed a strategy for his pitching should he get to the post-season. Despite mockery from pundits the gambit worked like a charm.

Harris and Martinez implausibly won the big prize those two seasons separated by some 95 years.  The word “implausibly” may not do them justice.  These were basically miracles in plain view. But, baseball is a game that is preposterous on its face.  A round bat against a round ball played on a square tilted to its point is an odd endpoint for the evolution of Cricket.  It doesn’t matter that the pitcher wins the individual battle seven times out of ten or more.  It’s when the three losses to the batter happen that matters. 

When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical

But then they send me away to teach me how to be sensible
Logical, oh responsible, practical
And then they showed me a world where I could be so dependable
Oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical

Supertramp

Cosmic Tumblers

Young fans get it.  Miracles and magic are inherent to the game.  Embracing the unlikely with complete disdain for rationality is the essence of fandom.  Reality can be stranger than fiction.  How many games are won, or lost when a team faces its “last strike?”  A team facing elimination five times while losing by two runs or more in the seventh inning should have been dead and stinking.  The 2019 Nationals would have none of it. More than one-third of their wins were in comeback fashion.  Trailing in a game is one thing.  Losing is another. 

Conjuring victory with a ball cap on backwards and inside out is only seen as silly by those who do not understand or have simply forgotten how to believe.

Embracing the unlikely with complete disdain for rationality is the essence of fandom.

In the Eighth inning of Game 7 of the 1924 World Series the Nationals were losing 3-1. With two outs Bucky Harris hit a routine ground ball to Third. It hit a pebble sending the ball over rookie Third Baseman Freddie Lindstrom’s head. Two runs scored to tie the game. In the bottom of the 12th inning, After two Giants’ errors Earl McNeely sent a similar grounder towards Lindstrom. It also hit something and bounced over the hapless infielder’s head. Slow-footed Muddy Ruel scampered Home from Second Base with the Series-clinching run.

Muddy Ruel nearing Home Plate with the Series-clinching run. October 10, 1924

In the Eighth inning of the 2019 Wild Card single elimination game the Nationals were losing 3-1. After two outs the bases became loaded when Anthony Rendon worked an improbable walk. Young Juan Soto then scored all three runners with a single that took a crazy hop which tied Milwaukee’s Right Fielder Trent Grisham into knots. Ground Crew members indicated after examining the field that Soto’s single landed on a pop-up sprinkler head.

In the Seventh inning of the 2019 World Series the Nationals were losing 2-1 in the Seventh Inning. With one man on base Howie Kendrick hit a Will Harris fastball. He was a touch late on the swing, however. The low screaming liner was slicing viciously towards foul in the sickening manner most golfers know all too well. But, then it drilled the Fair Pole.

https://twitter.com/i/status/1277308785002979329

Sometimes the fates are not the least bit subtle when aligning the cosmic tumblers.

After a Winter of Discontent

Alexander Pope’s 1734 poem, An Essay on Man, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast” is trotted out annually for countless Spring Training articles.  Often within weeks eternity has played out.   Age and experience reinforce routinely that long odds are, indeed, long for a reason. 

Enter 2024.  Clark Griffith’s squad and this one are connected by one singularity: No sophisticated fan would believe anything more than a desultory season was ahead.  The 1924 Nationals exceeded the wildest of wild dreams for the season. It is hard to concoct a scenario where this modern squad will follow suit. 

Unlike 1924 we are now equipped with computers running Monte Carlo calculations to project wins and losses.  Any decent-sized sports media outlet will have some vestige of projections.  Local call-in sports radio shows will solicit predictions from the fanbase.  And, the gambling industry will produce odds.  It’s all quoted endlessly until achieving near-gospel status.  Inconveniently it’s all also wildly inaccurate.   Queequeg casting bone fragments on the deck of the Pequod to predict the future proved to be much more prescient.

The late gridiron star Sam Huff would often state that, “If you live in hope, you’ll die in despair.”  What does the obverse then mean; to live in despair?  There are choices in fandom.  National brand teams attract front-running dogs.  People switch allegiances on the drop of a hat.  Being a Washington sports fan is not for the faint of heart.  Deep cuts produce hardened scars.  The easier course is to shy away from the anticipated and frequent pain.  But, then where is one when the rare moment of glory comes?

This team is ready to sail on the tide.  There is little collective wisdom indicating anything ahead save for a rough ride.  Bucky Harris and Dave Martinez snatched miracles out of seemingly thin air.  Is there one out there for this lot?  Forget probabilities.  Miracles are immune to such things because they simply aren’t supposed to happen…until they do.

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