WASHINGTON • Eleven years after he hit one of two known over-the-wall home runs in a congressional baseball game and six years after he took over on the mound, filibustering Democrats with his curve, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and a band of ballplaying legislators moved their annual contest into posh Nationals Park in 2008.
The Washington Nationals had brought a new ballpark to the nation's capital, a new venue for the clash between Democrats and Republicans, and eventually a new wisecrack for a city that has a long history of bemoaning its big-league club.
"We used to joke that we could draw more people for our game than the Nationals did at that place," Shimkus said Tuesday. "I guess we can't make that joke anymore."
A postseason absence of nearly eight decades ends this afternoon with a sellout crowd at that same ballpark when the Washington Nationals host the Cardinals in Game 3 of their National League division series. Since 1933, the nation's capital has seen at least 51 congressional baseball games played, 13 presidents take office, seven chief justices, two states added, seven amendments to the U.S. Constitution (including one to end Prohibition), and 40 Congresses, including seven changes of power in the House of Representatives.
But not one playoff baseball game.
"It's going to be a historic day with the city," said Mike Rizzo, the Nationals general manager. "It's going to be the culmination of a lot of lean times, a lot of very difficult decisions that we've made. I'm looking forward to seeing that ballpark jammed to the rafters and just as loud and supportive of a really good, young, athletic team. ... I'm going to be surprised myself. This is an inaugural voyage over here — playoff time in Washington."
The Nationals, who are tied 1-1 with the Cardinals in a best-of-five series, have become an overnight success — one many years in the making. The franchise was built from the relocated and stripped-down Montreal Expos and then refit with young, charismatic players, who are as high on hype as talent. Teen phenom Bryce Harper and ace Stephen Strasburg have been big draws for the franchise, which set attendance records this season as it surged to the best record in the National League, 98-64. One measure of the exponential climb in interest for the club came when it sidelined its best pitcher, Strasburg, for the postseason to prevent an injury. This made headlines all season, and not just in Washington. Instead of the national shrug afforded a last-place team ending a young pitcher's season, there was a "fervor with which there was disagreement, to put it mildly," Rizzo said. As Washington knows, nothing validates popularity quite like critics. The Nats had arrived.
When Edwin Jackson delivers a pitch at 12:07 p.m. (St. Louis time) today, it will be the first postseason offering made in Washington since Oct. 7, 1933, the fifth game of the World Series. The hometown Senators were down, 3-1, and scalpers had to sell tickets at less than face, $3 for box seats, The Washington Times reported. The New York Giants' Dolf Luque struck out the Washington Senators' Joe Kuhel to end the game, clinch the title and essentially send Washington into a 79-year offseason.
In 72 years of American League baseball, Washington's two franchises won three pennants and one championship, in 1924. After losing in '33, the Sens had just four winning seasons before moving to Minnesota in 1961. An expansion team dropped into D.C. that year and lost 100 games in each of its first four seasons. That club left for Texas in '72, and Washington was without a club until the Nats arrived in 2005. They didn't lose 100 games until their fourth season in D.C.
Then they lost 103 in 2009.
"It has been slow to embrace (the Nationals)," said Adam Clymer, a longtime political writer for The New York Times. "The team wasn't very good. In fact, it was awful. There wasn't a lot of reason to buy into this team. People who were baseball fans here wisely came from somewhere else. They rooted for their home team."
Though he grew up in New York, Clymer fell for the Cardinals in the 1940s. He was not alone in his fondness in Washington. Several Cardinals faithful would park their cars near the National Cathedral — one of the highest points in Washington — to get a clear signal from KMOX (1120 AM). A fan group grew from those parked cars. Vic Gold and Frank Mankiewicz, two renowned consultants on opposing political sides, found common ground in the Cardinals. They founded the Stan Musial Society, a group of like-minded Washingtonians who had a shared goal — better radio reception for Cardinals games — and would meet irregularly.
Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., was a member, and his pursuit for less static during Cardinals games led him to approach Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., one day on the Senate floor for help. Goldwater, a ham radio enthusiast, had a car with so many antennae off it that Danforth said it was "Batmobile-like." Goldwater helped him get louder static, not better reception.
Danforth often wondered if baseball was similarly stuck in Washington.
Static. Little reception.
"I wondered whether any major-league baseball team could make it in D.C.," said Danforth, who retired from the Senate and works in St. Louis. "They tried several times and weren't successful. It helps they have a good team, a good, young and exciting team. It will be interesting to see the crowd there. It will be interesting to see how many are wearing suits. There are so many suit-wearers there."
That would be historically accurate game attire for a town that last saw October baseball during the Great Depression, not long after the end of Franklin D. Roosevelt's first 100 days in office. But now instead of suits, it's Nationals red and Harper jerseys. Instead of Kiddo Davis in center for the opponent, it's Jon Jay.
It is, as they'd say in 1933, a New Deal.
"The city is crazy for this," said Mankiewicz, the longtime Democratic insider. "This has begun to rival the Washington Redskins, and that's not a small thing here. That's a religion. I think this will be an event, a true event. I hope the Cardinals spoil it for them."