We in Boston know well the exhilarating effect that a championship team can have on a town. We've experienced it firsthand with the Red Sox four times in this young century, to say nothing of six times (and counting?) with the Patriots and once each with the Celtics and Bruins.
Washington, D.C. has gone bonkers over its baseball team. The city without a soul has found one buried deep within the franchise once known as the Montreal Expos. That team has been the Washington Nationals since 2005 and this October they have drawn the nation's capitol, heretofore composed of individual fiefdoms, all engaged in knife fights to beat down the others, into a single community, all committed to a common goal. Their rallying cry is, "Go Nats!"
It just goes to show that there are some things that are more important than open partisan warfare. And baseball is one of them.
For a few hours each night, Washington denizens have been able to put aside the poisonous rancor that fills the place during daylight hours and join hands in rooting for the Nationals. It's enough to make you wish that baseball games would last even longer.
We in Boston know well the exhilarating effect that a championship team can have on a town. We've experienced it firsthand with the Red Sox four times in this young century, to say nothing of six times (and counting?) with the Patriots and once each with the Celtics and Bruins. We've had an embarrassment of riches, and the sweetest of those have been the baseball championships. This is not to denigrate the other sports at all, we'll never again see a run like the one the Patriots have put on for the past two decades, at least not in my lifetime. But football teams play only once a week while with baseball it's an everyday experience for six months, and that's compounded by another month of hope and expectations, if you're lucky. As great as the Patriots' Super Bowl championships have been, none of them -- at least not in my mind -- can match the Red Sox curse-breaking, 86 year drought-breaking victory in 2004.
The drought in Washington has been 95 years. Calvin Coolidge was president in 1924, the last (and only!) time Washington won the World Series. To make matters worse, twice in the intervening years Washington lost its baseball team. In 1961, the team packed its bags and moved to Minnesota, changing its name to the Twins. The city was immediately compensated with an expansion franchise, but that lasted only a decade before the new team decided to become the Texas Rangers. For 35 years Washington had to make do without a team. Oh sure, the Baltimore Orioles were only 40 miles up the road, but it wasn't the same.
Then, north of the border, the Expos imploded, and Washington, with new owners who had deep pockets, was ready. Thus ended the 35 year void in the life of the Federal City. It usually doesn't take that long. When cities lose baseball teams, they quickly realize what valuable assets they are and replace them as soon as possible. The Milwaukee Braves were reincarnated as the the Brewers; The Kansas City A's were reborn as the Royals; the Seattle Pilots became the Mariners. Even in New York, the Dodgers and Giants were replaced by the Mets. Cities that once had two teams -- Boston, St. Louis, and Philadelphia -- put more value than ever on those that remained, the Red Sox, the Cardinals, and the Phillies. It doesn't necessarily work out that way in the NFL. Los Angeles somehow thrived for a generation without a pro football team. It turned out that the league needed the city, and the market it represents, more than Los Angeles needed it. San Diego, though it wishes the Chargers hadn't moved, seems to be getting along just fine without them.
Even in minor league cities the vacuum left when a baseball team leaves town is quickly filled. In Louisville a half century ago the town fathers, in their wisdom, converted the stadium where the Louisville Colonels played into a football-only facility, thus evicting their long-time AAA baseball team. The city realized the error of its ways and at a cost far greater than keeping the Colonels would have been, brought on the Louisville Bats to replace them.
Whatever happened to the Louisville Colonels? They found a home in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and became the Pawtucket Red Sox, a hugely successful minor league team. Fast-forward five decades, and McCoy Stadium, the old park the Pawsox call home, was declared out-of-date and not suitable for renovations. After several false starts, the ball club struck a deal with the city of Pawtucket and the state of Rhode Island to partner in the construction of a new stadium just off of Route 95. The city was on board, the governor was on board, and the state senate was on board. But the house of representatives killed the enabling legislation, thus forcing ownership to look elsewhere. Worcester jumped in to fill the void, put together a deal to which all parties agreed, and construction of the new Polar Park is already underway.
2020 will be the final year of Pawtucket Red Sox, and worst of all, it will be the final year of AAA baseball in Rhode Island. It will still be within the territorial limits of the soon-to-be Worcester Red Sox, so no competing teams can move in there and Rhode Island will not get to do a course correction like Louisville did half a century ago. It's too bad the house of representatives didn't take that into consideration when they, in effect, tossed the Pawsox out of the Ocean State back in 2018. The big loser in all of this is the city of Pawtucket. It is losing its team through no fault of its own. It had worked closely with the ball club to keep it in town, only to be sold down the river at the state house.
The 35-year gap that Washington, D.C. endured without baseball will seem like nothing compared to what the state of Rhode Island will have to go through.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.
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