Back in late January, in the midst of this most brutal winter, a love affair with baseball came full circle. I walked into the Holiday Inn in Arlington, Va., and attended my first meeting as a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, or SABR, known for its fanatical devotees and pioneering statistical methods.
I was 13 years old when the owner of the Washington Senators, the perennially cash-strapped Bob Short, broke my heart and moved the team to Arlington, Texas, in 1971. It was only recently that I figured out that the loss of my boyhood heroes—as consistently lousy as they were—triggered a 34-year estrangement from the game I love.
In the years after the Senators left, I would follow baseball casually, sometimes a little more so, but never with the fervor or bright-light energy of my youth. My vintage baseball cards sat dormant in my parents’ attic; for three decades, I seldom mentioned the team and heroes of my youth.
More than ever, I felt a close kinship with the fans of Brooklyn, Seattle, Milwaukee and those other cities whose teams were wrenched from them and turned into faded memories and dog-eared pages of old game programs.
I wonder: Are there others like me?
As anyone who has lived in Washington for a while knows, the Senators in the 1960s were a dreadful lot, with a two-bit carny owner whose shenanigans included one-size-fits-all pantyhose night, inflated crowd numbers and monumentally bad trades.
His Senators were so cheap that at one batting helmet night promotion in August 1969, during a game with the similarly star-crossed Seattle Pilots, my friend Bob Krieger cracked his helmet while pounding it on the concrete steps in the left-field seats at RFK Stadium—but despite a mountain of leftover souvenir helmets, the Senators refused to give a crying 11-year-old a replacement.
In the pre-YouTube world of our youth, such deeds went unnoticed and unpunished.
It’s funny how none of that mattered to us. We loved the Senators unconditionally—for three decades, my mother preserved the “Youth in the Stands” T-shirt I had gotten that same summer, with the team’s dandy U.S. Capitol logo and a gigantic, circular Schaefer Beer advertisement adjacent to it on the front of the shirt.
Every day in the summer, my friends and I gathered at our neighborhood ball field to play pickup baseball games in Clinton, Md., a sleepy Washington suburb that was also the home of talented Senators lefty reliever Darold Knowles. One summer, I printed imaginary game programs for our imaginary team, the “Suburban Senators,” complete with our photos and ginned-up batting stats, earned run averages and inflated bios.
My brother, John, only slightly less in love with the Senators than I, took a wood-burning pen and customized the bat he’d gotten on Bat Day at RFK that summer. He wrote: “John Moniz model, good for 1,000 hits.”
On trips around the country with our family in the 1960s, I badgered my parents to take us to any major league ballpark that was close to any vacation locale. And by close I mean several hundred miles. Going to Gettysburg: How about a side trip to Philadelphia to see the Phillies? And so on, and so on, until the painful divorce from baseball arrived in the fall of 1971, and I stopped asking.
I’m not sure I ever cried or expressed to anyone how deeply traumatizing the loss had become. Instead, I just drifted away from baseball, burying the wound somewhere deep in my sports-fan soul. The final act of separation came when my brother and I defiled our red plastic Senators batting helmets, cutting off the bills to turn them into jammer’s helmets for the local roller derby team, the Baltimore Washington Cats.
When Washington was awarded the Montreal Expos and Major League Baseball moved the team here in 2005, I was elated while keenly appreciating the loss experienced by our Canadian neighbors in a way that only someone who has lost a beloved team can understand. I didn’t think about it at the time, but regaining a baseball club, even one that had become an underfunded, big league ward of the state, unleashed a tidal wave of pent-up interest.
I devoured the writing and theories of Bill James, the baseball stat guru and father of modern statistical analysis. I read no fewer than 50 baseball biographies, including the magnificent Leigh Montville opus on the life of Ted Williams, the last Senators manager.
I became the GM of a 12-member season-ticket group, which now shares two different seat plans, and I routinely make a March pilgrimage to Florida’s Space Coast to see the Nationals before they head north for the season.
My Youth in the Stands T-shirt is now framed, hanging in the den. My 1970 baseball cards are sheathed in plastic and given as gifts to relatives, friends and favored colleagues. My brother’s customized Bat Day bat resides on my back porch, next to my Ted Williams Moxie cola billboard.
Last year, I found the box score from my first major league game posted online. It was Sept. 15, 1968, the Senators against the New York Yankees. My mom took my brother and me and we sat in the distant reaches of right field to see Mickey Mantle in his last season.
What lingers in the imagination, though, is that first glimpse of the emerald green outfield, a whiff of cigar smoke and the first, best unrequited love.
Dave Moniz is the media adviser for the U.S. Air Force and a former reporter for USA Today and Knight Ridder newspapers.