June 26, 2006

Fetchez La Vache!

There's a minor controversy swirling around Frank Robinson. (Actually, there are a couple of minor controversies, but it's late and I must focus.) Capitol Punishment provides the full backstory, and an insightful analysis of Cap'n Hook's apparently limitless sense of entitlement.

The short form: Last week Frank gave an interview to Nationals.com in which he discussed, among other things, his time in Montreal and unpopularity with Expos fans. He contrasted it with the reception he's received since returning to the Washington-Baltimore area, saying: "I did nothing [as a player] in Montreal, and the Montreal fans are not baseball savvy like the people in the D.C./Baltimore area." Nationals.com beat writer Bill Ladson touched on the topic again in his weekly mailbag (before engaging in another round of subtle yet gratuitous Ryan Church-bashing.)

Leaving aside the smear of an entire metropolitan area's worth of baseball fans, (and we know how well-received those are,) Robinson's comments, and the Nationals impending return to the Great White North, got me thinking about something. What does this franchise, in its current incarnation, owes to the city of its birth, and the history of Nos Amours?

The easy answer is that the Nationals should do everything possible to honor their Expos roots, including retiring significant Expos jersey numbers, donning Expos unis for throwback games, and generally behaving as the lineal descendents of the Montreal baseball club, which of course is what they are.

The downside of this approach is that it unintentionally but inevitably shortchanges Washington, DC's own baseball history. Another complicating factor arises when you consider that much of that history is the legal if not spiritual property of two other teams, the Minnesota Twins (aka Washington Senators I) and the Texas Rangers (Washington Senators Part Duex.) True, the Nats did sport Homestead Grays throwback uniforms for one road game earlier this season, but that's just one small part of a rich baseball legacy.

No team can serve two masters, and I'm of the opinion that the Nats ought to be a Washington baseball franchise first and foremost. After all, most professional sports franchises have migratory pasts, and that's certainly true of DC's beloved teams. The Redskins were once the Boston Braves. The Wizards, formerly the Baltimore Bullets. The Capitals, near as I can tell used to form the core of a traveling production of Snoopy on Ice.

And the phenomenon is hardly limited to Washington. The Los Angeles Lakers, one of the NBA's iconic franchises, were born in Minnesota where their nickname made infinitely more sense. Ditto for the Utah (once New Orleans) Jazz. And you could ruin many a map of the continental United States trying to trace the overlapping paths of teams like the St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. Closer to the current state of affairs, baseball's Milwaukee Brewers have their own split lineage, geographic heirs of the Braves, lineal descendents of the Seattle Pilots.

The teams that matter are the ones that become woven into the social fabric of their places, becoming an inextricable part of their city, state or province. When a professional sports team abandons a city its history remains behind in the hearts and minds of the fans. And fans, by and large, are not migratory. They remain in place, waiting for the next itennerate franchise to come along. Then the process begins again, as the new arrivals are enriched with instant history that they may not immediately appreciate, but which bonds them to their supporters.

Washington DC's long-suffering, much maligned fans deserve a team they can call their own. A team that evokes memories of Griffith Stadium and white-painted seats in the upper decks at RFK. The Nats ought to be able to invoke the pitching of Walter "Big Train" Johnson, the slugging of Frank Howard and the managerial skill of Ted Williams. What do any of these memories have to do with Minneapolis or Arlington, Texas?

Unfortunately Montreal's long-suffering, much maligned fans deserve the same thing. But the appropriate solution is to work towards restoring major league baseball to Montreal, not providing a pale reminder of what used to be. After all, we have so much in common. We both dislike Frank's managerial style, we both think Omar Minaya ruined a jewel of a farm system, we both heartily endorse the proposition that Phillies phans simultaneously suck and blow. We are natural allies.

And hey, aren't the Marlins looking for new digs?

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