For two weeks, I’ve been absent from one of the most whirlwind sports times of year; a time my colleagues at the University Athletic Association like to call “Championship Month.”
For me, it's been “Life-Changing Month.”
My father died on Mother’s Day morning after being diagnosed with cancer nine months ago. The last two weeks were spent at my parents' home in Arlington, Va., with my family. His service was Friday. I’m back at work Monday, writing about the Gators.
Last week, I had to write the hardest thing of my life.
My dad’s eulogy.
Trying to encapsulate in 10 minutes the 60 years he shaped our family, loved and took care of our mother and imparted his wisdom on my brother and I was impossible -- and I won’t try to do it here in cyberspace.
Instead, I’m re-posting a story that ran in The Orlando Sentinel eight years ago. A story about my father, and me, and baseball. It’s because of him, I truly believe, that I ended up in this business of writing about sports.
This particularly story, was the second-hardest thing I’ve ever written.
The first time, it ran was for my job.
This time it’s in his memory.
COMING HOME: BASEBALL RETURNS TO WASHINGTON
On Sept. 30, 1971, Baseball Left The Nation's Capital In Pandemonium, And Sentinel Staff Writer Chris Harry Was There. This Was His Ticket Stub. Tonight, He'll Be There For Its Return.
April 14, 2005
By Chris Harry
Sentinel Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- The room would be dark, except for a slight glow from the clock radio on the bedside table. West Coast games, with those 10:30 starts, required a plan. Volume had to be low, vigilance high.
Around the fifth inning, the door creaked open, and my father's silhouette appeared.
"Turn that off and go to sleep!" he'd snap with just a hint of impatience before disappearing around the corner. His slippers would stop sliding about halfway down the hall.
Then came the whisper.
"What's the score?"
The Washington Senators were always behind. It didn't matter. The Senators were ours. We treated them as property, yet spoke of them like royalty. We forgave ineptitude because of that "W" on the cap.
There was something special about having a team to call your own -- and something crushing about losing it at age 11.
Sept. 30, 1971, was the day baseball died in the nation's capital. It was the day it died for me, too.
From a $4.50 box seat behind the first-base line, I watched as several thousand stormed the field at RFK Stadium and robbed my beloved, woeful Senators of what dignity was left for a laughingstock franchise.
The mob scene came with the Senators leading the New York Yankees 7-5 and two outs in the ninth inning of the last game in team history. A forfeit was declared. The game's statistics were wiped from the books. With that, the Senators became the Texas Rangers.
I knew nothing of Senators owner Robert W. Short. Why would I? I was in sixth grade and had enough trouble handling beginning algebra, Virginia history and a secret crush on Laura Schram. Short's money problems? All I knew was the team I loved -- the game I loved -- was leaving.
It would be years before I realized how clueless baseball's powers that be were -- even then. The nerve to steal America's pastime from America's most powerful city.
How dare they?
Over the years, resentment festered into cynicism about a game that exited my life in pandemonium. I never forgave baseball for my idle summers. I refused to root for the Rangers, refused to root for anyone. How could I pledge allegiance to a team that never truly would be mine?
Soon, the keepsakes that honored the Senators' significance -- posters, caps and Keds boxes stuffed with trading cards -- were tossed in the back of a closet with forgotten board games, puzzles and G.I. Joes.
Baseball. It saved Ray Kinsella's soul. It put a dagger through mine.
No wonder I became a football writer.
IN FAMILY BLOOD
My father used to spin tales of the old days, when his friends, home on Navy leave, would roll like kings in their white '51 DeSoto convertible, through the lush Shenandoah Valley and into the city. They'd park and take a 25-cent streetcar ride to old Griffith Stadium, where they cheered Mickey Vernon and his hapless teammates in defeat. Their devotion was no match for Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio, but their loyalty never wavered.
Neither did mine. It was in my DNA.
Station-wagon windows down, the summer rides from nearby Arlington took us by monuments built to heroes past -- Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln -- while my heroes warmed up at RFK.
I recall the eagerness of walking through the gates and waiting for that first glimpse of the diamond. Smelling the hot dogs. Hearing the organ music. Buying a program. Filling out the scorecard. Keeping watch for the cotton-candy man.
And waiting for Frank Howard to come out of the dugout.
"Hondo," the Senators slugger, stood a steroid-free 6 feet 7 and 285 pounds. His homers were moon shots in an era of Apollo launches. So titanic were Howard's blasts that stadium officials used white paint to designate their touchdowns in the gold upper-deck seats.
Amazingly, three of those white tributes remain at RFK. As I walked into the stadium Wednesday, my eyes immediately went searching for them. The admiration for their staying power put a smile on my face.
The city weathered nine presidential inaugurations, three wars, Watergate and a terrorist attack since the last regular-season baseball game here. The stadium hosted more than a hundred Redskins games.
Through it all, those hallowed seats remained untouched, as if beckoning for baseball to come back.
Memories of playing catch with Dad are every son's treasure. I have those, yes, and many others. I used to scan the Little League bleachers for his face. It showed approval after a diving catch and support after a called third strike. I needed those then, cherish them now.
But the most poignant baseball moment of my life occurred at my father's side, right here, at RFK.
Section 211, Row 2, Seat 11.
That's where I sat 34 years ago. Together, we chronicled the death of the Senators in the form of a scorecard obituary. It hung in a basement gallery of precious family memorabilia for a third of a century.
Tomorrow, a new scorecard will hang next to it.
It would be fitting if I could be in 211-2-11 next to my father tonight when the Washington Nationals bring baseball back to the nation's capital. Dad couldn't get a ticket. He'll watch from home but be with me in heart.
I'll watch from the press box.
How is it that a league that put a team in an empty dome in St. Petersburg goes more than three decades without one in Washington, D.C.? Only baseball's owners can answer that question.
At least they had the good sense to make things right. Just you watch. The Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, are about to go from paupers to princes.
Some 46,000 are expected for the spectacle that'll mark baseball's first relocation since the Senators high-tailed to Texas. George W. Bush will join Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon as presidents to throw out D.C.'s ceremonial first pitch.
The Expos routinely played to crowds of 1,500 in Montreal and for the past two seasons played 22 home games a year in Puerto Rico. Now, they've moved to America's No. 6 television market. Nationals season-ticket sales already have topped 20,000, placing '05 attendance estimates at nearly 2 million. In three years, the team will move into a $528 million downtown waterfront ballpark.
"We're seeing everything from the reverse side this year," Nats center fielder and former University of Florida star Brad Wilkerson said. "We're going to a city that's getting a team and is excited about it."
Wilkerson, 27, wasn't alive when the Senators existed. Only two of his teammates were.
"You can only imagine what a city like Washington must have gone through when it lost that team," he said.
Nats hitting instructor Tom McCraw played first base for the Senators in '71. His single in the eighth against the Yanks 34 years ago was the last hit at RFK.
"If you look at the cycle of events, I've made this big circle around the Earth and now I'm back where I started," said McCraw, wearing a cap with the same shade of red and familiar script "W" that stamped the last Washington franchise. "It's the strangest thing I can imagine."
Not as strange as the image of McCraw and his teammates being chased into oblivion.
THE FINAL GAME
History books tell of baseball being played in D.C. before the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861. Two National League franchises failed in Washington in the late 19th century. The Senators arrived in 1901, a charter member of the American League.
Behind Walter "Big Train" Johnson, they won the World Series in 1924. Over the next five decades, the city earned the slogan, "Washington: First in war, first in peace, last in the American League."
In 1960, the franchise moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. An expansion version that took the original's place lost more than 100 games its first four seasons.
Short, the miserly owner, bought the team in '69. In just his third year, he gutted a team managed by Ted Williams with a series of horrific trades. He didn't even wait for the '71 season to end to announce he was moving to Texas.
Our family went to the Senators' farewell game anticipating a sentimental sendoff.
Not a rebellion.
Barely 14,000 showed, but starting pitcher Dick Bosman sensed the uneasiness well before taking the mound. Now a minor-league pitching instructor with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Bosman refused to warm up at the usual spot in foul territory, opting for the bullpen.
"It was evident early there wasn't enough security," Bosman said.
In center field, a banner honored the reviled owner: "Bob Short Fan Club." The section was empty.
Patrons yelled anti-Short chants throughout. One group climbed atop the home dugout and stomped away, shouting Short obscenities until stadium police came. In the eighth, three fans began circling the bases, shaking hands with players. By the time the trio had been rounded up, 40 or 50 more raced into the outfield. They were cleared without incident, but tensions were mounting.
In the top of the ninth, Senators reliever Joe Grzenda got Felipe Alou to ground out. McCraw, playing first, saw hundreds of fans inching toward the fences.
Umpires did, too.
McCraw recalled verbatim the conversation with a man in blue.
"Mac, they're about to come on the field. If they do, I'm out of here."
"I'll be in your back pocket."
Bobby Murcer bounced one back to Grzenda, who threw to McCraw for the second out. Horace Clarke was in the on-deck circle.
Grzenda waved frantically for Clarke to hurry into the batter's box. There was no chance.
"They wanted something, anything," Bosman said. "They wanted a memento."
The infield and outfield were torn apart in a ravenous souvenir hunt. The bases disappeared, the outfield was a pockmarked mess, and the light bulbs and placards from the scoreboards were gone.
What I remember most was a primal scream for order. Mine.
Minutes later, the loudspeaker crackled: "This game has been forfeited to New York." The stadium lights dimmed.
For me, so did baseball.
BASEBALL IS BACK
In January, Wilkerson accompanied teammates to RFK. Someone pointed to Howard's white seats in the gold upper-deck distance. Wilkerson shook his head at the longest homer ever recorded here.
"There's no way he hit one that far," he said.
Back in RFK on Wednesday, I was thinking the same thing as I circled the stadium and made the long walk to that immortalized spot. Climbing the outfield ramps, I thought of the trinkets I saved from back when baseball mattered to me. Just last week, I placed a 35-year-old Senators pen set on my desk and dusted off a key chain and cap. Collectors items, they'd been unretired from storage recently.
Sitting in the seat Howard made famous -- that same wooden chair back, with paint so battered it chipped off with a flick of a fingertip -- I squinted to see home plate in the distance. Wilkerson was right. It was hard to believe Howard, or anyone, could hit a ball that far. Not as unfathomable, though, as baseball ever leaving here in the first place.
It probably took Howard's homer about four seconds to get here. It took baseball and me a lifetime.
But can I love it again?
It's two weeks into the 2005 season. Already, I've found myself watching ESPN crawls, waiting for Nats highlights and spending a few more minutes with the box scores each morning. That's a start. This summer, I'll be back in Washington on vacation. I'll bet my daughter -- she's 11 -- would enjoy going to a game at RFK with her daddy . . . and granddaddy.
I can see it now: I'm walking through the house one night and catch her e-mailing friends and surfing the Net when she's supposed to be asleep. I tell her to go to bed.
Shuffling down the stairs, I stop halfway, knowing all too well what she's up to. And vice versa.
Then the whisper.
"What's the score?"
Ralph B. Harry
March 20, 1930 - May 12, 2013