Here are three true clichès and some additional comments about Our Nation's Capital:
1) Until very recently, Washington was a sleepy Southern town.
2) It is recession-proof.
3) Nobody ever goes home. And also:
4) Being recession-proof doesn't sell season tickets to basketball and hockey games.
5) Everybody in Washington says the reason the baseball Senators never drew was that they were located within the city limits.
6) Everybody in Washington says the reason the basketball Bullets don't draw is that they are located out in the suburbs.
7) Statistics prove that Washington has twice as many psychiatrists per capita as any other city in the country. Also, until this year, starting quarterbacks.
8) The beleaguered institution of marriage is making a comeback in the District of Columbia. This is because houses are so expensive—average price: $100,000—that no man of marriageable age can afford one. Therefore he must find a female government employee to help share the expense. (Or possibly it is dowries that are making a comeback.)
9) The expression "political football" was used in Washington as early as 1839. Honest.
Next, here are four views of Washington from some folks who went there from other towns for business reasons:
Richard M. Nixon, erstwhile District resident and Redskin fan: "The trouble is, Washington is a city without identity. Everybody comes from someplace else. Anywhere else people say, 'I'm from Cincinnati, I'm from New York, I'm from Topeka.' You never hear people say that about Washington. Deep down, they still think they're back home. But you take any hometown boy—well, these days I guess you have to say hometown 'person'—and they come to Washington for politics, but they need an identity with the city. And the Redskins provide that. The Redskins are the only thing in Washington that the people think of as 'ours.' Nobody in Washington gives a tinker's dam about the Kennedy Center or the Washington Symphony."
Mike Curtis, aging linebacker with the Redskins' Over the Hill Gang, formerly of the Baltimore Colts: "Washington fans are just like any others. They're all the same, fans—all the same, everywhere. Just because they're not educated in Baltimore and they are here—people are still all the same when they're fans."
Edward Bennett Williams, the high-powered lawyer and part owner and president of the Redskins, formerly of Hartford, Conn.: "People who come to Washington never go home, although they may keep their allegiances to their teams back home. People here are more secure—the government's not going out of business—so they're not as hungry. The real-estate market downtown is paralyzed because everybody's waiting for the next Arab. For a lawyer, it's heaven. It's like being a banker in New York or a surfer in Hawaii. This place has got to draw anyone with eyes and ears. It's a celebrity town, motivated by power. My motion-picture friends always tell me that Washington reminds them most of Hollywood."
Mort Sahl, recently a radio talk-show host in Washington, formerly of the 1950s: "This town is poison. It's petrified. The people are on automatic pilot. All they talk about is power. America's falling apart. Your sons are homosexual. Your women are ambivalent. Your people here are the walking dead. This city has nothing to do with America. Get out!"
It certainly is a strange place, Washington, D.C., altogether atypical. But we all know that. It is not only that it was never cut out to be a sports town, it was never cut out to be any kind of town. It was just conjured up as part of a North-South trade one night by Jefferson and Hamilton, and to this day the people of Washington perceive themselves as throw-ins in the deal, players that were named later.
Even the most prominent "major league" American cities feel some need for their home teams to succeed against municipal rivals; every city has a little Sparta left in it. All but Washington: because no mere ball team is going to affect how its people feel about their city, which is now almost surely the most important one on the face of the earth. A nouveau riche burg like Dallas or L.A. needs a team to prove itself to a skeptical Establishment, just as an old, burned-over place—New York, say, or Pittsburgh—boasts of its champions all the more proudly, as if to say that the fading city still does throb and thrive. But what does the capital of the free world need its teams for?
Sure, devotion to the Redskins is widespread. They get as much attention as the government (and nearly as much as the subject of federal employee benefits), but there are only eight home games each season, which makes the commitment convenient. Besides, almost every city has had its NFL social disease sometime in the past 20 years, and the more sophisticated sports towns have long since been cured. More revealing is that Washington—and whenever we use the capital's name here, it means the whole metropolitan area—is the only city in baseball's modern era to have lost its big league franchise twice.
The capital did go spontaneously wild for about 24 seconds a year ago when the Bullets won the NBA, but just as quickly, it forgot about its first champions in 36 years—until this past season's playoffs. Certainly, no one in Washington feels shamefaced that he does not "support" a winner. Just as the city is recession-proof, so, too, is it booster-proof. The local Jaycees are not going to go out to the District line and erect signs saying WASHINGTON, D.C., HOME OF THE CAPITAL OF THE FREE WORLD. The Spirit of the town is national, at large, which conflicts absolutely with devotion to a home team, which is the quintessence of American localism.
Remember that Washington doesn't know what it is to compete, at anything. The last time the city was really challenged was in 1814, and on that occasion the British marched in virtually unopposed and torched the Capitol and the White House. Congress was so disgusted with the whole cowardly citizenry that it threatened to move the seat of government to Philadelphia or Lancaster, Pa.; worried local bankers loaned the government $500,000 to redecorate, and this carried the day. Ever since, Washington has lived off the fat of the land, looking out for its own, finding better jobs for those the electorate has dismissed, inventing new layers of bureaucracy, dreaming up new regulations for lawyers to monkey with. You can do this when you don't have to worry about Memphis stealing your GM parts plant or Denver taking your insurance home office. When you think about it, the only thing Washington ever lost was the Senators. Twice.
Unlike teams from most cities, Washington's have never generated any out-of-town passion or antagonism. Get the Senators? Redskin-haters? Washington can get stirred up about the Cowboys, but Dallas doesn't react with unkind remarks about the Ellipse or the Lincoln Memorial. Even in Baltimore, only 40 miles distant, the citizens never get stirred up over playing Washington; they want to whip New York. New York—like Paris, London, Rome—is power with passion. Washington is only the former. It's sad, but nobody ever wrote a love song about Washington.
Occasionally, of course, the capital goes too far and gets the whole country riled at it. But this passes soon enough, as soon as we throw the rascals out and turn them back into lawyers and lobbyists. By contrast, the national antipathy for New York or Los Angeles is continuous and sustaining. A little civic abrasion helps the fans and the players get up for the game. But Washington, D.C.?
Clayton Fritchey, the respected political columnist, makes this point: "The great unchallenged myth is that the people hate Washington. It's accepted because Carter is supposed to have won by running against Washington. But Americans don't hate their capital. You can see the affection on the faces of the tourists downtown. And if Washington is in such terrible disrepute, then why don't the people overthrow Congress, which represents them in Washington? But they don't. In recent years, the smallest number of incumbents sent back to Congress was 88%. There's the proof."
Hate Washington? Hate the municipal version of the Great American Dream, where everybody is white collar, everybody secure, everybody dealing in real estate, everybody a lawyer or in love with one? And people in Washington know that. They are going to win the things that count. They always have. So what's a game to them? The ones who are prepared to compromise and get major league baseball back by sharing a team with Baltimore always say, "Why not take half a loaf now? Eventually we'll take over the franchise and have it all to ourselves." Doesn't Washington do that with everything it touches?
But if everything is guaranteed, if Washingtonians have nothing to be defensively contentious about, neither do they know what to hug to their breasts. They are all from someplace else, and few of them genuinely believe that anything in Washington belongs to Washington—including themselves. Unlike other hometowners, they can't take pride in the usual things: their powerful industry (there is none); their glorious natural setting (Washington was built on a swamp); their beloved traditions (it is a society of transients); their beautiful women (Baltimore and Richmond, on either side, are known for their belles); or their ball teams (losers; as every mother's son used to know by heart: Washington—First in War, First in Peace, Last in the American League).
Moreover, Washington is a geographical bastard. While it is hunkered down at one frazzled end of the Northeastern megalopolis, in many ways it resembles a Sun Belt boom-town, with young people pouring in all the time, charging the air, charging everything else at 12%. Sixty percent of the women in Washington work—only in Houston do as many women have jobs. Everybody in Washington apparently is 32 years old and drives a Volvo with no more than 12,000 miles on it. The joggers are everywhere downtown, whizzing past bureaucrats adorned with photo ID badges. "Nobody smokes, and everybody is running around in their underpants," a visiting Israeli said the other day.
"We've forged ahead of New York, not only in the sense of power, but in the way that the composition of Washington best reflects the spirit of the country," says Clark Clifford, the former Secretary of Defense. "New York has more of the old ethnic cast and strains, but Washington has the broader cross section of today's American society."
It can be argued that Washington outdoes the Sun Belt cities at their own game, for those subtropical Valhallas of youth and no yesterdays also attract the aged seeking warm winters, as well as a lot of riffraff, TV drifters who go with the sun, sure that they'll break their losing streak at the next step farther south or west. Washington is not burdened with these people. Everybody comes to the capital with a firm purpose—even if eventually that purpose becomes just to stay there.
Washington is strange, flawed in many ways, but it may well be the country's beau ideal. There are no tall buildings. It is said that nothing can exceed the 287'5½" height of the Capitol. (The Washington Monument is the exception.) Everything looks so glorious and solid. And everything is at your feet. People used to talk about cities lying at your feet. In Washington, if you're bold enough and fool enough, there is the sense that you still can conquer it. That must be why nobody ever goes home from Washington. It is the one place that has sort of an away-court advantage.
Remember the word smart? Not just smart like bright, but smart like fashionable, and also smart like cocky or fresh. Smart is the best word for Washington, in all those ways. Among the top 20 metropolitan areas of the country, Washington has by far the highest per capita income and level of education. And you could say it is a pretty smart sports town. It is smart to be seen at a Redskin game. The smart guys wait for the NBA playoffs. World tennis is run in Washington by Donald Dell. The National Rifle Association is located in the capital and lobbies smartly there, so that every sportsman in this great nation retains the God-given right to dispatch fellow sportsmen with Saturday Night Specials. Washingtonians are very knowledgeable, very involved in studying sports, even if they rarely bother with actually paying to see a game. They flood the sports pages with letters expressing indignant opinions about minutiae. George Allen, the former Redskin coach, still viewed by many as a Napoleon on Elba, continues to get so much mail from Washington that he has had to hire a temporary secretary to help him reply. Washington radio is filled with all manner of those awful talk shows on which bores and egomaniacs call in to harangue statistics freaks.
On the other hand, if you're so smart, why aren't you rich? Washington has never possessed any real money. Even today it is still a town of department stores, not of boutiques. The taxis pick up additional passengers along the way, like Mexican jitneys. The most important people in town, the role models, if you please, are politicians, who expect freebies for the best seats. The baseball Senators, under the Griffith family, survived on the concessions and what Cubans they could bring in on green cards to pitch and bunt. George Preston Marshall and his Redskins fled from Boston during the Depression, penny-anted through the War with Sammy Baugh, and then kept the franchise afloat by selling its soul to white Dixie TV viewers, refusing to integrate the roster until 1962.
After Calvin Griffith cut and ran with the Senators to Minnesota, the capital had an expansion club for 11 seasons until the absentee owner, Bob Short, started whining about the dearth of TV revenue, and spirited the team to a Texas interchange. "If the Pirates threatened to move out of Pittsburgh, one of the Mellons would say, 'Hey, Pittsburgh needs a team, take it out of petty cash,' " says Shirley Povich, the retired sports columnist of The Washington Post. "But here there was no one to buy the club from Short." With the Redskins' Marshall dead, the bulk of Washington's football franchise belongs to Jack Kent Cooke, who lives in Los Angeles. The hockey Capitals have had to promise their fans their "money back if not satisfied" in order to scare up season-ticket buyers, and after the Bullets won the NBA last year, they reportedly added only 675 more season tickets, up from a meager 2,875.
Andy Dolich, director of marketing operations for the Washington Diplomats, the town's soccer team (owned by an absentee conglomerate), says, "This is a one-industry town, but the product is paper. You can't sell season tickets to the government. Sure, there are all the trade-association guys, but they don't have to go to games. They have to go to parties. If there is such a thing as a lunch-pail town, then Washington is an hors d'oeuvres town, and the hors d'oeuvres are always free."
The irony of all this is that, although there is a paucity of great wealth, just about everybody in Washington has walking-around money, incomes averaging fully 25% more than the national figure. The noble bureaucracy is more and more considered to be an American mandarin class, benignly ruling a poorer nation of middle-class unfortunates. The Redskins (or the, more familiar, 'Skins) have the highest average ticket price, $12.65, in team sports. Almost everyone is land-rich, job-guaranteed and pension-assured. There is more inclination to speculate than to root. It is not just a coincidence that the sports pages in Washington are glutted with gambling information. The lordly Post ventures into the how-to shallows only on two regular occasions: when it comes to instructing the local body politic in what is fashionable to wear to Redskin games and how to bet on sports with savvy.
If any of the remarks on Washington contained herein appear unduly harsh, it is possible they arise from the author's own early municipal bigotry. In honoring the Supreme Court's dictum that journalists must fess up to what is in the back of their minds, it is only fair to reveal that I hail from Baltimore and possessed certain childhood prejudices against Our Nation's Capital. This was because both the Senators and Redskins then held Baltimore's territorial rights, which forbade my fair city from achieving major league status.
But it is also the truth that as I grew in grace, through the magic of television I came to gain sympathy for the poor denizens of Washington. I watched the 'Skins stumble about the gridiron every Sunday, and while to this day I can repeat Hail to the Redskins as well as I can Ring-Around-a-Rosy and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, that stirring martial air was hardly enough to make up for the accompanying dreadful pigskin antics. The Senators were, God forbid, even more inept, so frightful that they went under an alias: they were known as the Nationals or, worse, the Nats. One of their sponsors was National Bohemian Beer, and one year they had a song that went, "I'm nuts about the Nats. I'm nuts about the Nats. I'm crazy about the Senators, but I'm nuts about the Nats."
In Baltimore we were privileged to watch the Nats on TV. It was a sorry spectacle. The rest of the country saw Washington as this magnificent city of monuments, museums and the White House. We in Baltimore viewed Our Nation's Capital through the prism of the 'Skins and the Nats.
One time, my favorite time, the Nats got a runner to first and, carried away by this aberration, the manager sent in a fleet pinch runner. His name was Julio Becquer, one of the many Cubans who peopled the Nats' roster. Julio found his way to third, but then, unfortunately, the Nats' brain trust desired to conduct some intricate strategy, and they had to remove the pinch runner for a pinch runner because the original speed merchant could not understand English. To me, that sporting episode best symbolizes Washington: a city of pinch listeners, in for pinch runners.
I asked my father once about Washington. He replied, "It's a strange place, son. You can't stand up to take a drink there." It was true, too. Until very recently, no person on his feet in a public establishment could, even for an instant, hold a glass of spirits in Washington, D.C. (This law, I am advised by Duke Ziebert, a preeminent Washington restaurateur, was instituted "to protect the working girl," although why, I cannot imagine, since working girls in Washington can protect themselves, in the same sense that killer bees can.)
I soon found this out for myself, because in those halcyon days it was legal to drink beer in the capital at the age of 18—or younger, really, if you could produce even the most makeshift counterfeit identification, inasmuch as so much attention was paid to making sure that drinkers were sitting down that little vigilance could be directed at the age of the participants. The legal age of consumption in Maryland was 21, and since there were many rock-'n'-roll joints around 14th Street in Washington, the finest young stock of Baltimore would drive down regularly to patronize these amiable saloons.
Understand, I am not just reminiscing. I bring this up for two good reasons. First, to note, with some pride, that I feel very much at home in Washington, because I was journeying there (and in my formative years, no less) for booze and the fair sex long before the public realized that our elected government was motivated to go there for precisely the same reason. Second, it is my contention that the only people who can properly assess Washington are those from Baltimore. Most of the country holds Washington too much in awe, or is confused by it. New York is merely jealous of it. But we from Baltimore hold the capital in just the right beer-swilling perspective.
People could not comprehend how Spiro Agnew could take the money, take it right there in his office, right next to the White House. How could he do it in Washington? Well, you see, he came from Baltimore, and what is Washington to us but just a larger version of Annapolis or Ocean City? The District of Columbia was, as you probably know, carved out of Maryland. Virginia gave up a piece, too, but took hers back in 1846. For a long time, Washington, as a city, lay in the shadow of Baltimore, Maryland's own metropolis, which was much the more populous until the Depression, when Washington grew with wild abandon.
In fact, in the pre-abandon days the families in Washington who were not involved with government—"cave dwellers," they are still called—very much resembled the plain folks up in Baltimore, and native Washingtonians even speak with the nasal drawl that is known as a "Baltimore accent." Hyman Perlo, director of community relations for the Capital Centre, who grew up in Washington before the War, recalls, "Now you can go downtown and feel the power oozing out. But when I was a kid, we knew that the government was here only because we could see the buildings. For most of us, it was just a smaller Baltimore."
All the cave dwellers knew each other. There were only a handful of high schools. There was no night life to speak of and only a couple of passable restaurants. "Until a few years ago, if you weren't at my joint, you were camping out," Duke Ziebert says. Georgetown was a dèclassè neighborhood. One of the town's great amusements was Sunday "industrial league" baseball, played on the Ellipse in back of the White House. It was all so quaint. For pickup basketball, the favored place was the gym at Huerich Brewery, on the site of what is now Watergate. Monday was fight night, usually at the Uline Arena, which was adjacent to an icehouse. In season, fans would ride the trolleys down Florida Avenue to Griffith Stadium, a tiny little trapezoid of a ball park.
Wet and stifling summers—"bilious fevers are universal," an early visitor warned, and things never improved until the advent of air conditioning—caused Congress and the wealthier whites to take off en masse for the mountains or the shore. Then the place couldn't even resemble Baltimore—in Baltimore people had to keep on working in the summers—but was more like Savannah or Charleston, that is, Dixie rustic. The District's non-voting Congressman, Walter Fauntroy, who grew up right around the corner from Griffith Stadium, recalls spending many summer afternoons perched in a huge elm tree that afforded him a view of the baseball game over the stadium's high rightfield wall. "The chief official personages who people the scene are villagers, with a villager's attitude and a villager's background," a foreign observer sniffed in 1932, just before Franklin Roosevelt came to office.
"F.D.R. changed everything here; he made Washington," Clayton Fritchey says. "Before him, we all admired U.S. Presidents simply because they got to meet New York bankers." When John Adams arrived to set up presidential shop in Washington on June 3, 1800, there were 131 federal employees. In the next 133 years, the total number working in the Washington area grew to 65,400, but in F.D.R.'s first seven it more than doubled. Now there are 360,000, and because every business, association, charity and fraud must have a nagging voice in the capital, tens of thousands of others are trying to harvest the federal soil that the 360,000 till. Washington is now the eighth-largest metropolitan area in the nation and, given its disposable affluence, it should be a sporting paradise.
However, only the Redskins draw crowds commensurate with the size of the city, and there's a hitch: a mere 15,000 season-ticket holders control nearly all the seats at RFK Stadium. Thus, VIPs can't always freeload in, and many spectators bring binoculars, not so much for the game, but—as Kremlinologists study the review stand at the May Day parade—to discover which lucky government functionaries Edward Bennett Williams has deigned to invite to his presidential box.
In an hors d'oeuvres town, appearance often counts more than the standings. Don't forget that in Washington many of the most attractive people are election losers who hung on, stayed visible and, often as not, accumulated more money and style than they ever did as winners. One of the acknowledged reasons why the Redskins gained such acceptance is that George Preston Marshall made it a priority to get local jobs for his players and encouraged them to mix and mingle. Duke Ziebert, whose restaurant is the sports hangout downtown, maintains that the Bullets' lack of popularity stems from their failure to do this. "You never see the Bullets hanging around," Duke says. "It's not a race thing. The 'Skins—black or white—are always part of the community, always in all the joints."
The Redskins also get almost all the endorsements. Says Charlie Brotman, a District native and sports public-relations executive, "When the Senators were here and the Redskins were bums, not even Frank Howard could take endorsements away from the football players. Pro football has a special place here. I don't even consider the Redskins a sport."
Marshall created this illusion. A shrewd promoter, creator of the season-ticket concept, he sized up his audience and went heavy on the pageantry. (It is revealing that those who speak fondly of the departed Senators invariably start off by saying what a glorious spectacle were the Presidential Opening Days.) For the 'Skins, Marshall created the first marching band in pro sports and commissioned the fight song, which is a dandy. After victories, George Allen used to go over to Ziebert's and lead choruses of it a cappella. Marshall was also way ahead of his time in attracting women to the Sunday show.
Not that love for the team was eternal. In 1946 Marshall sold 31,000 season tickets; by 1952 the figure was down to 13,000, and mass Sunday euphoria did not become evident until 1971, when the inscrutable George Allen came onto the premises.
For a long time the team's special problem was Marshall's racial myopia. To him, it was said, NAACP meant Never at Anytime Any Colored Players. His prejudice must be considered in the light of time and place. Washington has always had a Southern exposure (it even had slave markets), and as late as 1925 the Ku Klux Klan marched downtown without upsetting local white sensibilities. Segregation remained the way of life until well after World War II, and uneasiness about race was a main reason why Calvin Griffith took the original Senators to Minnesota in 1961. As soon as a black neighborhood was picked as the site for the new municipal stadium, Griffith started packing.
The District itself is about three-quarters black, although more whites are moving back, house-speculating, but the whole area has about an average metropolitan racial mix and average attitudes on racial matters. Says Jean Fugett, the Redskins' tight end, who works as a metropolitan reporter for the Post off-season, "You can conjure up all sorts of excuses, but when people like Larry Brown and Charley Taylor didn't get good endorsements here, you can only rationally conclude what is obvious, that this is still a Southern town in many more respects than it likes to admit."
The failure of the champion Bullets—who are predominantly black—to capture Washington's hearts is also widely presumed to be on account of race. A Post survey disclosed that basketball was the second-most-popular sport in town—15.6% to football's 44.7%—but one gets the feeling that the hoops are on their way to becoming a cult sport, rather like their winter colleague, hockey. The hockey Capitals draw from a small pool of well-educated suburban fanatics, and basketball in Washington seems to be reducing itself to the same sort of monomania—180 degrees away from the mass appeal that has been the salvation of the Redskins. The basketball fans are dilettantes, specialists. Last March, 19,035 banged out the Capital Centre—where both the Bullets and Caps play—to watch a high school all-star basketball game. It wasn't like a game; it was more like an experiment in a laboratory. The spectators were cold-hearted basketball mavens, and they booed the poor adolescents who didn't live up to their press notices and dared to take a bad shot now arid again.
They also booed Lefty Driesell, the University of Maryland basketball coach, merely for showing his face. With his extraordinary aptitude for recruiting, Driesell has raised the neighboring Terrapins to an exalted position in town, perhaps second in interest only to the chic 'Skins, but too long has Lefty promised and failed, and now the wrath of high expectations defeated is falling down upon him. Too, the capital has never been especially keen on college sports; the big bowls, for example, want nothing to do with the Maryland football team because they know that area fans will not travel to support it.
And much of Maryland's basketball popularity is attributable not so much to the Terps themselves as to the corporate mystique of the Atlantic Coast Conference. ACC games flood Washington television, to the detriment of the Bullets and the NBA. It seems that every Southerner in the government has a rooting interest in one of the ACC teams, and, next to the Boston Red Sox, the North Carolina Tar Heels are probably the most popular out-of-town team in the capital. The Red Sox are a special favorite because such an inordinate number of federal types either come from Harvard or seek to give that impression—and how better to do it than boast Bosox allegiance? (Perhaps it is not fair to point out that there are no two more accomplished also-rans in all the land than the Sox and the 'Heels; mightn't we have been better off at SALT talks with a government full of Yankee baseball and Alabama football rooters?)
But never mind: to the dismay of all other athletic enterprises, nobody gets the attention the 'Skins do. In 1972, the year the team reached the Super Bowl, the Post dispatched a staff of 13 to cover the event—twice as many as covered the first moonwalk and 11 more than it took to topple a President. Both the Post and its rival daily, the Star, have excellent sports sections, but they go berserk as soon as the 'Skins suit up. Radio and TV are worse; they ignore every other sports experience, except possibly the exactas at Laurel.
This is not to suggest that the press goes easy on the 'Skins. The battles with Allen—"Richard Nixon with a whistle," he was called—were regular and rancorous. No, it is just the sheer mass and scope of the coverage, made all the more significant by the fact that Washington has such a media mania. People follow the papers there, much as normal fans follow teams. The way the sports press in Washington covers its beats exactly parallels the way the national press covers the government.
The Redskins are the presidency; you can tell right away because both get heavy coverage, day in, day out, whether or not anything is happening to them. CARTER RELAXES AT CAMP DAVID. 'SKINS SCAN WAIVER LIST. For years the season was treated as a campaign, with the two contending quarterbacks the candidates. Even now, the first pre-training-camp stories—identical to pre-New Hampshire primary stories—are appearing.
Says Nixon, a most knowledgeable student of Washington sports, "You must remember that there is a close relationship between all sports and politics, but especially in Washington and especially with a combat sport like football. Why, you can take the lingo out of football and apply it directly to any political campaign. The key words are all the same: clash, strategy, momentum, taking the offensive."
To gain popular success in the nation's capital, a team needs a strong (and preferably controversial) presidential-type leader, who can be an easy receptacle for credit or blame: the Griffiths, Preston Marshall, Senator expansion managers Gil Hodges and Ted Williams, Driesell, Allen. The Bullets have overlooked this priority and have, instead, foolishly concentrated on building a winner. There is just no identifiable presidential figure on hand. Abe Pollin, the Bullets' bashful owner, is as decent and honorable as any man in sports, so that lets him out. Dick Motta, the coach, although eminently quotable, has the unfortunate habit, for these precincts, of being too blunt, never the dissembler. He is proud of his squad and calls it "an unpretentious, working-man's team." Unfortunately, a bunch of low-recognition-factor mechanics is the last thing white-collar Washington wants on its teams.
As the Redskins are the presidency, the Bullets are the Senate—but, sadly for them, they are the workaday Senate of whips and subcommittees, the Senate that bores political fans and never makes the six o'clock news. The Senate that attracts interest, the sexy one, is the Senate of strong personalities—Kennedy, Humphrey, Taft. For the Bullets to catch on in the regular season, they need a celebrity figure.
The Capitals are the House of Representatives. Except to the most dedicated scholars, both the hockey team and the House are a faceless rabble of outbackers who never attract any attention until an external agency forces them into the public eye against their will—a controversial tax vote, the Canadiens coming to the Capital Centre.
There are several tennis tournaments in Washington, and they are like the Supreme Court. Tennis is out of sight, hidden behind the presidency/Redskins for much of the year, popping up at intervals with decisions/tournaments. Moreover, because tennis is the In game in government, it has a disproportionate popularity, just as the preponderance of lawyers in town creates a disproportionate and abiding interest in the Court.
The soccer team, the Diplomats, who are—word of honor—known as the Dips, are equivalent to the Vice-President, whoever that is.
College sports are covered far down the list, like the Maryland state legislature. High-flying Maryland politicians are periodically sent to the hoosegow; the Terrapins lose to Penn State every fall and Carolina every winter, just when they start cracking the polls. It's very neat.
The trouble is, this doesn't leave any place for baseball. And that is precisely why baseball has never been able to carve out a place for itself in the capital. Baseball is too much like the government itself, an everyday exercise replete with numbers and a hierarchy. It is true that there were seldom any compelling reasons for the Senators to become a big draw in Washington. So traditionally low were home-team expectations that one season the slogan was "Off the Floor in '64!"—a paean to next-to-last place—but surely it would be healthy for all of America if the measured game of summer came back to Washington and touched the frenetic government.
Unfortunately, Washington has no history of deserving a baseball team, and no person capable of buying one, either, unless possibly the next Arab can be introduced to Charlie Finley. Also, for all its size, Washington is limited as a drawing area and as a TV market by Baltimore's presence to its proximate north.
The matter could be solved by having Baltimore—itself no great shakes at supporting a team—share the Orioles with Washington. The two disparate cities draw closer all the time. Twelve percent of Oriole attendance comes from Washington, and a like percentage of Baltimoreans attend Capital Centre events. Moreover, Washingtonians are starting to speculate in Baltimore real estate and, for the especially venturesome, Baltimore has become sort of a live theme park, an Urbanland you can visit for a day and in which you can munch crab cakes, see a real harbor (as opposed to a marina), perhaps even encounter a union man or a housewife or two. Most significantly, the business leaders of the two cities have formed a revolutionary "Common Market," presenting themselves as a single entity to the commercial world.
So, sharing a team would be no big deal, and plans should be made soon enough—if a state-assisted Baltimore consortium can gain control of the Orioles. The scheme would then be to split the schedule, playing half the games at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, half at Washington's RFK, eventually moving the whole schedule to a Maryland state-built "Meadowlands-type stadium/racetrack complex" in Laurel, about halfway between the two downtowns, in the center of a population draw of five million. This would make it the fourth-largest TV and market area in the country, the largest with only one professional team. As numbing as Washington can be as a sports town, it would have a hard time lousing up this arrangement.
Naming the baseball team should not be particularly difficult, either. Leave us not forget the Nats. Maybe the Chesapeake Nationals? Or, better, the National Chesapeakes—the vaunted Chessies. Or, perhaps best of all, the National Pastimes. Has a certain ring to it, doesn't it? CHIEF EXECUTIVE TO THROW OUT FIRST BALL AT 'TIMES LIDLIFTER. 'TIMES SCAN WAIVER LIST.
After all, it is only correct that the national pastime have a place in Our Nation's Capital. Right now, it sometimes seems that only the Redskins provide sporting ballast to a place that Henry James called "indefinably ridiculous and yet eminently agreeable."
The best sports towns are not representative of the entire country, as Washington is. Those other cities tend to be strained, edgy, proprietary. They need to win on the field. That's why they are good sports towns. Their teams are a cutting edge against the outside world, not an identity for strangers to cuddle up with. So:
1) If the rest of the country were like Washington, we wouldn't need Washington. And,
2) If the rest of the country were like Washington, we wouldn't need leagues, either.