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Appreciate Spring Training After 31 Lost Years of D.C. Baseball

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WASHINGTON (CBSDC) - There were way too many cold winters for Washington baseball fans from the time that the expansion Senators bolted to Texas in 1971 until the Nationals were born in 2005.

Of course, the one that hurt the most was in 1972, the first for the nation’s capital in 82 years without dreams of spring training and what might become summer.

However, the runner-up had to be 1974, the year that we thought the Padres were going to be ours after five lousy seasons in San Diego.

Imagine the excitement in D.C. on May 27, 1973 when Padres owner C. Arnholt Smith confirmed that he had sold the franchise for a then—record $12 million — nearly $4 million less than George Steinbrenner had just paid for the fabled New York Yankees — to a group of Washington-based businessmen, led by Joseph Danzansky, the owner of Giant Food.

While the deal to move the franchise to Washington for 1974 seemed a done deal, it wasn’t. The Padres had 15 years left on their stadium lease with the city of San Diego which wasn’t budging.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn was a District native who wanted baseball back in his hometown. But Kuhn and Danzansky needed to convince eight of the other 11 National League owners to put a team back in a market that had lost franchises in 1960 (to Minnesota) and 1971 and was just five years removed from major riots and destruction.

“I was surprised at the lack of real sentiment expressed at the [Dec. 6 league] meeting on behalf of Washington,” an unnamed team executive told The Washington Post. And yet, the vote was unanimous to move the Padres if “certain conditions” were met by Dec. 21. Foremost among the concerns was indemnifying the league if San Diego officials went through with their plan to ask for $72 million in damages, $12 million of which would was going to come from the NL’s other owners.

“I would guess we will have no difficulty in finding a mutually satisfactory solution,” Danzansky said knowing that he had the support of leading members of Congress, which still ran the city’s affairs in that year before the vote for home rule.

But San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, the future Governor of California, declared, “The city will wage war against the league … to keep our baseball team.”

In the meantime, uniforms were created for Washington’s new team and Topps printed cards with photos of the ’73 Padres in their hideous yellow and brown color scheme. Since the team didn’t have a new nickname, the cards – I still have the ones of Nate Colbert, who had slugged a record five home runs in a doubleheader in 1972 — and future Cy Young winner Randy Jones – said the players were from Washington “Nat’l Lea.” The opener was set for April 4 at RFK against Philadelphia. After three seasons without baseball, we had a team again.

And then out of nowhere, Ray Kroc retired as CEO of McDonald’s and matched Danzansky’s bid while promising to keep the Padres in San Diego. Smith and his relieved fellow NL owners accepted the offer just like that Washington’s best chance for a team disappeared for more than three decades. The White Sox briefly considered leaving Chicago for the nation’s capital. In 1991, the Astros were going to move from Houston to Washington, but the NL owners again voted to keep D.C. from regaining a team.

Former MLB first baseman Nate Colbert in 1974. (Credit: @DavidElfin)

Former MLB first baseman Nate Colbert in 1974. (Credit: @DavidElfin)

During the intervening 31 seasons after the Padres’ aborted move, Denver, Miami, Phoenix, Seattle (for a second time), Tampa and Toronto were all granted expansion franchises instead of the nation’s capital while more than a generation of Washingtonians grew up believing that the once-despised Orioles were ours. Baltimore’s team even opened a souvenir store across from Farragut Square.

Meanwhile, the Padres’ attendance nearly doubled – to an average of 13,277 in 1974. They finally finished over .500 in 1978, won the NL pennant in 1984 and got back to the World Series for a second time in 1998. Tony Gwynn, perhaps the best pure hitter of his era, starred for both those teams. San Diego also reached postseason in 1996, 2005 and 2006. Trevor Hoffman, eventually the all-time leader in saves, pitched for all three of those teams.

Oddly, when Washington finally got a team again in 2005 it was the former Montreal Expos, the Padres’ expansion partners from 1969. The Nationals’ only winning seasons have been the last two and their only trip to postseason came in 2012 while they’ve averaged roughly 28,000 fans at RFK and Nats Park (which opened in 2008) with an average record of 75-87. One of the Nats’ two biggest stars is San Diego native Stephen Strasburg, the hard-throwing 25-year-old right hander who was the top overall pick in the 2009 draft.

Meanwhile, the Padres have had just one winning season since 2007 and have averaged roughly 29,000 fans at Petco Park with an average record of 79-83 over the last nine years.

It’s great to have the Nats, their six-year-old stadium, Strasburg and fellow All-Stars Bryce Harper, Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Zimmerman et al, but I would gladly trade them all for the 31 years that Washington didn’t have a baseball team with which to spend the summer.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last four Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.

Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.

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