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Before Nats reached Series, Senators reached new depths

The Nationals’ improbable postseason run rekindles memories of the woeful Washington Senators

ST. PETERSBURG — The World Series begins next Tuesday.

In Washington, the clocks, if not impeachment inquiries, have stopped. The city’s lost-and-found baseball team, the Nationals, are in the Fall Classic for the first time in 86 years.

And in Northern Virginia, not far from the District, Frank “Hondo” Howard, the iconic Senators slugger, 6 feet, 7 inches of beloved launch pad, 48 homers one season, “The Washington Monument,” is a happy man.

“Young fellow, this does a heart good,” Howard said. “People up here deserve this. All of us who played here can share in it.”

And to think the Nationals did it without Bryce Harper, who fled to Philadelphia for mega-millions before the season. Wonder where Harper is watching the Series. The Nats did it despite a 19-31 start that had people wondering exactly when Dave Martinez, the ever-friendly former Rays bench coach, would get fired. Instead, people are fired up. Finally, something Washington politicians agree on.

When the Nationals clinched the National League pennant this week by sweeping St. Louis, they weren’t alone. There were generations rejoicing, once-lost generations of National fans who went 70 years without winning, who then went 32 years without so much as a team, from 1972 to 2004, until baseball moved the failing Montreal Expos to D.C.

Washington never gets its due as a near lovable loser. Boston and Chicago’s baseball losers were adored, celebrated. The Senators, probably because of all the interruptions — they were there, gone, there — never quite got lead billing. They just lost. They sank to the foggy bottom.

Nobody knows the trouble Nats fans have seen. To Rays fans worried about their team eventually leaving, National fans would tell a tale that would send their story packing.

The District lost its baseball team twice. In 11 years. Try that one. After the 1971 season, the Senators, with a promising young basher named Harmon Killebrew, departed for Minnesota, where they would make the World Series five years later. Then the expansion Senators beat it to Texas in 1972. Beat that, Tampa Bay.

Until this week, hapless Washington had not made the Series since 1933. They won a single championship, in 1924, on a bullpen day, with a starter turned closer in Game 7 (name: Walter Johnson) to beat the New York Giants. The next year, a Senator named Roger Peckinpaugh made eight errors in a single Series as Washington lost to Pittsburgh. The troubles had begun.

“Here’s a fun fact,” said Rick Vaughn, former Rays vice president of communications, who grew up a Senators fan in Alexandria, Va. “They made the Series in ’24, ’25 and ’33. They couldn’t even have champagne to celebrate. It was during Prohibition. That’s how long it’s been.”

My friend and former co-worker Chris Harry grew up near D.C. and was a Senators fan until baseball cut his heart out with the Senators’ move to Texas. He’s now back with the Nats. He thought of his late father, Ralph.

“My dad was born in 1930,” Harry said. “He started comprehending baseball when he was, say, about 5. So, after the last World Series in 1933, and until he died, they had five winning seasons for the rest of his life, the rest of his life.”

The Senators were so bad for so long that the slogan was: “Washington: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

FILE - In this April 7, 1969, file photo, President Richard M. Nixon throws out the ceremonial first pitch in Washington as Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, second from left, and Washington Senators manager Ted Williams, far left, and others, look on. [ANONYMOUS | AP]

Washington was so bad for so long that there was an entire 1955 musical about it, Damn Yankees, about a mythical player named Joe Hardy who makes a deal with the devil to rescue his Senators and win the pennant over mighty New York. The production ran 1,019 performances on Broadway. The real Senators show ran on and off for a good portion of the 20th century, with intermissions. The devil always won.

Washington and baseball were so cursed that the city couldn’t even give the Senators a proper decent burial. Instead, in the final game of the 1971 season, before the Senators shuffled off to Arlington, Texas, a riot broke out at RFK Stadium with two outs in the ninth inning and the Senators leading the Yankees. Fans stormed the field. It was Sept. 30, 1971.

Harry, who was 10 at the time, was at the game, sitting with his family in box seats along first base. Also present was Dick Bosman, Washington’s starting pitcher that night. Bosman, 75, a longtime Rays pitching coordinator who retired last year, won the American League ERA title in 1969, the season the Senators awoke from a deep slumber for an actual winning season under manager Ted Williams, only to have miserly owner Bob Short scuttle the team, pull the plug and move the franchise. Bosman found out late in the season.

He takes it from there:

“It was tough. After ’69, our hopes had risen. We got a taste of winning. We almost drew a million fans. There were a lot of exciting things going on. I had many, many friends there. I married my wife there.

“I found out on TV. We were sitting in my wife’s folks house over there in Fairfax. They come on there and say the owners had voted to let Short move the club to Texas. And that was it.

“Something was going on that last game. You could tell. I hadn’t yet learned to separate my emotions from the task at hand. I learned that later. I was too emotional about it. We had to warm up in the bullpen down left field because there was so much going on around the dugout.

“Walking in from the bullpen I had tears in my eyes. I was having a hard time. It was over. I didn’t pitch well. I dearly wanted to get the last win there.”

Howard hit his 26th home run. The Senators, who would finish the 1971 season 63-96, led 7-5 with two outs in the top of the ninth inning.

Bosman said, “I was in the dugout. I wanted to be there for the last out. It was pretty apparent that something was going to happen. It was like 10-cent beer night in Cleveland, that riot, which I also pitched in, incidentally.

“There was no security. And the ones that we did have, they couldn’t get out of their own way, much less stop somebody. It was absolute chaos, people all over the field. I remember Del Unser coming in from center field without his uniform top. People were trying to dig up home plate and the mound. Guys were trying to take the numbers off the scoreboard. It was wild. You could tell this was not going to end pretty.”

An announcement: This game has been forfeited to New York.

The wavy roof of RFK Stadium, seen behind the Capitol building, became a regular site in the 1960s when the Washington Senators called it home. Winning, however, did not become a regular occurrence with the Senators. [EVAN VUCCI | AP]

Bosman said, “And that was it. After, I sat in the clubhouse with Hondo and Don Mincher and we drank all the beer until everybody left, just sat there and drank National Bohemian. We were melancholy. Frank and I especially. Frank had his greatest years there. Frank Howard, next to my dad, is the greatest man I know. He came over from the Dodgers and taught us how to be big leaguers. He taught us how to carry ourselves when we got beat, and Lord knows we got beat a lot. We had our cars parked underneath. We got in and went home.”

Bosman, at home outside Columbia, S.C., watched on TV when the Nationals clinched the pennant. In the winning clubhouse it was as if Prohibition had ended. It was a long way from three guys drinking National Bohemian in an empty stadium in 1971 to champagne celebrations.

“There’s some irony there,” Dick Bosman said. “I’m just happy for them. I know and worked with Davey. It’s so great for the city.”

A toast: here’s to Washington in the World Series.

Frank Howard was on the phone. Hondo has been battling health issues. That towering frame is stooped at times. But not this week. It is standing tall and proud.

“Young fellow, I’d like to make one parting remark,” Howard said. “Go Nats, go Nats, go Nats.”

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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