To understand the 1969 Washington Senators, think back to June 29, the first game of a double-header with Boston in sweltering RFK. The Senators entered the bottom of the ninth down two runs. Then they rallied, thanks to three walks, a sacrifice fly, a couple of fielder's choices, four Boston pitching changes, and two errors, with the game-winning run scoring on a botched double play. The Senators would go on to sweep the doubleheader, part of a six-game winning streak, en route to an 86-76 record that far exceeded 100-loss predictions.
In other words, the '69 Senators were just like the '09 Nats, except it was the other team's hot dogs exploding.
"It is almost like 40 years later, the total opposite," said Stephen Walker, whose book on the charmed '69 Senators, A Whole New Ballgame, was published this spring. "I was thinking at the beginning of the year, maybe they'll catch fire like they did in '69. But it's been the total opposite. Whatever could go wrong, has gone wrong."
In the summer of '09, a city starved for a winner has gotten wan gruel filled with a few sparkly Froot Loops of Fail. In the summer of '69, a city starved for a winner got the Washington Senators' only winning season in a decade, a dash of celebrity with Ted Williams, 48 home runs from Frank Howard, a league-leading ERA from Dick Bosman, and a chant called the "Nasty Nats," which involved Howard jumping on a postgame clubhouse table wearing nothing but his towel, removing his false teeth, and leading his teammates in verse. The lyrics?
"I don't think they'd be printable in a family newspaper," Walker said. "Nobody would tell me what the lyrics were because they didn't want them to be in the book. I guess they got pretty nasty."
Whereas we get a Nasty Boy in the TV booth.
Walker, a Centreville native who turned 7 during that season, conceived of this project in 1996, when the government shutdown left him at home with nothing to do. He had been to his first Major League game in '69 and remembered the team capturing something in the city, some spirit of love and affection and excitement. So with the government telling him to stay away from the office, he started going to area libraries and digging through the archives.
The project got shoved along during the team's 30th anniversary celebration, was put on hold for half a decade of child-rearing responsibilities, and shuddered back to life as this year's 40th anniversary approached. Walker interviewed around 20 players, coaches and support staff from the '69 team, woke up at 4:30 in the morning every day for a year to write, and collected stories like this: after constantly ribbing Howard about his fashion choices, teammates finally stowed away his wardrobe one day while he was in the shower. With fans waiting him out, Howard had the bat boys retrieve his car, left via a secret exit, and drove home in his underwear. And still, they kept winning, ending the season with eight wins in nine games.
"The town just fell in love with them," Walker told me. "What was magical was that they went so far above people's expectations. [Catcher] Jim French told me, you know, maybe we just got lucky that season. Things did break right for them."
Which brings us to, you know. The team of broken spirits.
"Oh, it's been awful," Walker said of the 40th anniversary team, the team that was supposed to help him sell books. "If you dream about a bizarre way to lose a game, it seems like it happens. But I'll ride it out with them....I think the main lesson is to hang in there. Sometimes when you least expect it, better days come."
(The book is available through the publisher, Pocol Press, or through Amazon. Mark Lerner already has a copy. Walker will be doing a signing this Saturday at The Dugout Zone in Howard County.)