Baseball Breeds Change In D.C.

UGUST 4: Starting pitcher John Patterson #22 of the Washington Nationals pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 4, 2005 at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC.
The Washington Nationals continue to enjoy a winning record, and they remain in the thick of the National League wildcard race.

As Jim Axelrod tells us, it represents a big change both for the team and for its brand new hometown.

Washington, D.C. It's the capital of the world's lone superpower and home of monuments to liberty and justice. You're looking at a major league city. Right?

Yet it's been 34 years since Washington could legitimately call itself that.

But big league baseball is back in D.C.

"There's just something a little more major league about your town I guess?" Axelrod asks one fan.

"Yeah. It's something else to do. Not everybody goes to the Kennedy Center," the fan says.

Last year's Montreal Expos – a failing franchise that drew less than ten thousand fans a game – have relocated and reappeared as the Washington Nationals. The move has tripled attendance and produced a sound that hasn't been heard here for decades.

"Cities are like a beehive in a lot of ways and there's a hum to the city. You can tell what's happening with the hive by the hum," says Anthony Williams, the mayor of Washington, D.C.

"I think there's a real opportunity to bring a city together in a way that only baseball can. People want to own this team and love this team," Williams adds.

Washington has a rich tradition as a baseball town. All-time strikeout leader Walter Johnson was a Washington Senator. Ted Williams – maybe the greatest hitters of all time – managed here. Presidents from Taft to Truman, Ike to JFK, have thrown out the first pitch. And now, once again, baseball is the thing to do in D.C.

"Tonight was a real special night at our pool. But the kids were like 'We don't want to go to raft night at the pool. We want to go to the Nationals game,'" says one mother.

Part of that tradition was lousy baseball teams. Often, the old Washington Senators, well, stunk.

It was three Senators who reminded their teammates to buck up before a fan sold his soul to the devil to help the team win in the movie "Damn Yankees."

But the new Washington team is putting a new spin on the old image – with a winning record. The team is largely a collection of no-names. The one headliner is the manager, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

"To come here and to get the support and the backings and the excitement and the enthusiasm that we have received from the fans so far – it's just unreal," Robinson says.

This is Robinson's 50th year in Major League Baseball. The move from Montreal to Washington has made it one of his happiest.

"The big difference here is when you come out here on the field, you see people in the stands and they're usually rooting for you and they're gonna root for you," Robinson says.

Frank Robinson is more than just the biggest name on this ball club. He's part of baseball history. Thirty years ago, he became the first African American to manage a big league club, which means he's in a unique position – not just to help rekindle baseball's relationship with an entire city but a specific part of the community that has grown ever more distant from baseball altogether.

A mural next to a weed-covered baseball field a few blocks from the Nats' stadium says it all. "Play ball?" Sure. Every kind but baseball.

Just ask Justin Wright. Axelrod asks him if he could be a professional in baseball, football, basketball or soccer, which one would it be?

"Basketball," Wright says.

Baseball's connection with black America has never been looser. While there are ever more minorities in baseball – Dominicans, Japanese, Koreans – only 9 percent of players on big league rosters opening day a year ago were African-Americans. Compare that to about a third a generation ago.

Axelrod asks Robinson if, as a pioneer, he felt any extra responsibility to make sure that the diminishing number of African-Americans stops and to reverse the trend.

"Yes I do. This is a great game. This is America's game. And we have to get Afro-American people involved in that again," Robinson says.

In a city that's 60 percent black, the return of Major League Baseball seems to present an enormous magnet.

At least that's what radio host Doc Walker thinks.

"With the Nationals being here in Washington, the ball growth will quadruple. Because kids get exposed to it, you get to see it, you develop stars, you know," Walker says. "There's no team here for 34 years, so now… there's also a concerted effort. People will get into it again. I guarantee you. It will come up."

Maybe. The Nats seem aware, hosting Miss Black America contestants here and sponsoring a team in major league baseball's inner city all-star league. But Frank Robinson says the problem requires more to fix than just a scratch of the surface.

"Baseball has to understand we have to get into the community. Not make commercials and not stand there at the ballpark and say, 'come on out here kids.' You have to go in and refurnish the fields in the inner cities and get programs going," he says.

But if the Nats keep winning and the outreach goes deeper, then maybe roots will grow. And maybe, just maybe, in Washington, D.C., they'll need to repaint the mural.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for