The stroll up the gentle slope to the Home Plate Gate outside Nationals Park offers a concrete history of baseball in Washington, D.C., with the landmark years embedded into the sidewalk in huge red numerals.
After 1971, understandably, there is a gap. It takes a few extra steps to get to the marker for 2005.
If only those 34 years were that simple to traverse for the city’s long-suffering fans, specifically those who fought, lobbied and practically begged for the sport to return after the Senators left for Texas after the ’71 season.
At long last, today, they will see the payoff. Or, more precisely, the playoffs.
“At no time — and I want to stress this — was this something that was preordained to happen,” longtime D.C. Councilman Jack Evans said this week. “This was a struggle. ... Baseball just didn’t want to come to D.C.”
In retrospect, it only seems fitting and proper that the national pastime should be showcased in the nation’s capital, that the Washington Nationals should be hosting the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the NL division series in a packed ballpark that offers upper-deck views of the Capitol and the Washington Monument.
But it’s the first playoff game in D.C. since 1933. That’s right: 1933.
For much of that wilderness there was no baseball at all and only quixotic hopes it would return. It took an ideal storm of circumstances — involving a determined set of sung and unsung heroes — to get it back, climaxed by a celebratory announcement at Washington’s City Museum on Sept. 29, 2004.
Both before and after that date, the D.C. baseball saga had more drama than a 12-inning game in October.
“There were times,” said Fred Malik, a key figure in the quest, “we thought we were going to blow it.”
How did it happen? The simple answer is that a game of ownership merry-go-round left the Major League Baseball powers-that-be with nowhere else to go.
Florida Marlins owner John Henry wanted to buy the Boston Red Sox, so he sold them to Jeffrey Loria, who had to sell the Montreal Expos first. That left Montreal without anyone at the top, so the other 29 major league owners bought the club, putting it in perpetual limbo with a dwindling fan base and no prospects for a much-needed new ballpark. There was even thought of eliminating the team altogether, but the major league players negotiated a moratorium on contraction in the 2002 collective bargaining agreement.
“All of a sudden the Expos are sitting there, just a horrible franchise with no owner,” Evans said. “The issue was, ‘What do we do next?’”
Portland, Las Vegas, Norfolk and Charlotte were among possible destinations, but Washington had something those cities didn’t — a serviceable ballpark that would make do until a new one could be built. That would be RFK Stadium, the home of the Senators all those years ago. Though it was woefully outdated, at least it was still standing.
But baseball was playing hardball. Commissioner Bud Selig had it clear that the new ballpark would have to be financed 100 percent up-front by the city. That was a tall order for a municipality that had been through some tough financial times, and where opponents argued loudly that money should be funneled instead toward struggling schools or other needs.
Then-Mayor Anthony Williams huddled with his advisers and put his political reputation on the line by calling baseball’s bluff. In the spring of 2004, he met with a group of baseball owners and explained a creative financing plan that met their demands.
“There was one clear thing baseball said to us: ‘You’ve got to build a stadium,’” Evans said. “It wasn’t ‘We’ll pay for some of it; we’ll pay for part of it.’ It was: ‘You’ve got to pay for the stadium.’ That was the way it was, or we’re not coming. And I believe they meant that.”
Then came the follow-up questions: Was baseball serious this time, or was Washington again being used as a pawn to get other cities to make better offers? And what about Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who claimed that Washington should not have a team because it was part of his team’s market?
And what about the folks across the Potomac River? The Northern Virginia region, with his wealthy residents fueled by the Internet boom, made a serious bid bankrolled by former telecommunications executive Bill Collins.
In fact, it’s felt that one of the people most responsible for baseball in D.C. is then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who balked at the last minute over a financing plan that would have built a stadium in Loudoun County — just a little farther away from Baltimore.
“They had us,” Evans said. “And had not Gov. Warner at the time refused to back the bonds with the state’s full faith and credit, they could very well have gotten the franchise.”
Eventually, baseball said yes to the Expos’ move to Washington. Then they said no. A few weeks after that festive September 2004 news conference, the city council voted down the financing plan because it used too much public money.
Major League Baseball responded by shutting down the business and promotional operations that had been set up in D.C. Mayor Williams said: “The dream of 33 years is now once again close to dying.”
“The most troubling moment in the odyssey was about 1 o’clock in the morning on that Tuesday in December,” said Bill Hall, chairman of the D.C. government’s Sports and Entertainment Committee, “when the council was unable to pass the baseball agreement.”
Fast and furious negotiations ensued. A compromise was worked out, but one that was able to satisfy baseball. Two weeks later, the council voted 7-6 to approve the new deal, and the move was on again.
The renamed franchise, the Nationals, debuted at RFK in 2005.
Certainly there have been new challenges since then. The team was terrible most of the time. Attendance was disappointing, and local television ratings were abysmal. The council had to go through another contentious vote to approve a lease agreement for the new stadium.
But baseball found an owner for the team, selling it to real estate developer Ted Lerner. The club moved into Nationals Park in 2008. Fan support has grown, and the team is finally winning.
Most of those responsible for making it happen will be there today for the playoff game. Many of them have moved on.
Malik gathered a list of thousands of potential season ticket holders and hoped to own the team, but baseball passed him over in favor of Lerner. Evans is one of only two council members who essentially supported the baseball movement from start to finish who still hold elective office.
But most everyone agrees: It’s all been worth it.
“When I walked out of that stadium after the last (regular-season) game last Wednesday, people were just so happy and thankful and all of that,” Evans said. “I looked around, and the place was packed. I’ve been at last games in the past when there’s nobody there. It just was a good feeling that whatever it took to get there, we did it. And that’s what mattered.”