The Washington Senators: The Character Builders


I moved away from the Washington, D.C. area many years ago, but still avidly follow Washington’s sports teams.  That said, the Capitals “flaming out” in the first round of this year’s NHL playoffs didn’t bother me much.  Nor does Bryce Harper in a Phillies uniform. 

It’s not that I don’t care.  It’s more that I was a Washington Senators fan from earliest memory.

If it’s true the sports build character – or at least shape it — the Washington Senators made me what I am.  They were always at the bottom of the American league.  And they’d maybe win a third of the time and only once made it to the top half (upper division) of league standings – for about a week.  Adult men were all talking about it – though I was too young to know what “upper division” meant – perhaps a two game winning streak?

So you see, start life as a Senators fan and you get used to losing, and that’s been helpful over the years.  Lose seven out of ten times – but win once in a while….well…that’s ok.

In other words, I’m a loser – or at least have a certain equanimity when dealing with life’s inevitable setbacks.  Thank you Calvin Griffith for moving the “good” Senators and Harmon Killebrew to Minnesota in1960 and leaving me with the, ahem, “new” Senators.

Grow up as a Yankees fan and it’s different. Either win 100% of the time (at everything, not just baseball) or be permanently enraged at having been cheated.

I ran my theory by a U.S. Marine General – a New Yorker and a Yankees fan – some years back.  His reply:  “Yeah (what of it?).”

He also had a “Yankees fans only – violators will be shot’” sign over his parking space outside the headquarters.  This probably wasn’t a joke.  Rather, “general order #1 for the Sergeant of the Guard.”

It gets even worse.  I was also a Redskins fan, and they were only slightly better than the Senators.  Recalling what the Dallas Cowboys and Don Meredith used to do to us – no matter how late in the 4th quarter and how big the lead – induces PTSD even now.  Best not to think about it.

It’s not that people didn’t try to turn me into a “winner.”  But even Ted Williams could only do so much.  And Frank Howard’s home runs only boosted self-esteem for the 1.5 seconds it took them to clear the fences (by a lot) before the Nats lost.  And anyway, by then I was 13 – and my only first-hand experience with “winners” was when we drove up the Baltimore Washington Parkway to Memorial Stadium to watch the Orioles play.  That’s right.  Go to Baltimore to learn about “winning.”  For crying out loud.  

Unfortunately, Vince Lombardi wasn’t around long enough, though George Allen gave me passing familiarity with the idea of success – until the Miami Dolphins reminded me otherwise.  However, I still appreciate Garo Yepremian’s last-ditch effort on my behalf.  And while George Allen’s Redskins were excelling – that barely made up for the chaotic end of the Senators before Bob Short moved them to Texas in 1971. 

There was one final chance in my formative years to overcome this unhealthy tolerance of losing.  The Washington Bullets weren’t bad in the early 1970’s – though they were sort of a half-Washington and half-Baltimore team.  It felt good during the 1974-75 season as the Bullets steamrolled the opposition – even the Celtics.  And then they dropped four straight in the NBA finals to the San Francisco Warriors and Clifford Ray – in a Senators-like performance.  Not even Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld winning it all in 1979 helped — though it was always a consolation to know Wes could at least beat up the other team singlehanded.

By the time Joe Gibbs arrived, I was almost 25 years old and not exactly accustomed to winning.  I will admit to a degree of pride saying I was “from DC” during those years, but after two decades of Dan Snyder I suspect I dreamed up John Riggins and the Hogs and three Super Bowl victories.

In recent times, the Nationals failure to win a World Series – or get to one – hasn’t bothered me much.  Not being thought ridiculous is plenty good for a Senators fan.  One of these days I might even buy a Nationals ball cap – but probably won’t wear it.  You see, the “W” is the same style as the Senators’ “W” – and public displays of affection for the Senators just wasn’t something one did.

The Capitals winning the Stanley Cup two years ago was disorienting — after years of coming up short – with which I am more familiar.  And by Senators’ standards being an also ran ain’t bad.  It was nice the Capitals won, I’ll admit.  But it’s only hockey, and one step removed from soccer.  If D.C. were Montreal or Toronto (speaking of losers and Maple Leafs fans) it might be different.  

So while I have at least tasted success now and then in life, I’m more familiar and content with that pleasing malt liquor, ‘Schadenfraude’ – especially whenever the Dallas Cowboys have a 4-12 season or the Orioles – who used to take the Senators’ lunch money and stuff their heads in the toilet – play like they have for the last decade.

I suppose for us Senators fans, someone else’s failure is success enough.