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“I try to not live in the past,” declares former Washington Senator Frank Howard, taking a final drag off his umpteenth cigarette last Thursday night. Howard’s statement comes at the conclusion of a three-hour autograph and gab session at a Springfield sports bar. Nobody else in the crowded saloon could repeat Howard’s assertion without sending a polygraph needle through the glass.
Howard’s past, after all, was why This Is It’s management invited him to make an appearance. And why so many locals ignored the hideous traveling conditions and showed up.
They wanted to be near their beloved Hondo.
The Capital Punisher. The 6-foot-7, 285-pound gentle giant who hit moonshots into major-league cheap seats for 16 years, including seven seasons with D.C.’s long-departed team. He’ll never make Cooperstown, but these folks know Howard was his team’s all-time home run champ (382 total in his career), the only bona fide superstar the expansion Senators ever had. They are keenly aware that the reason the upper deck of RFK Stadium used to be dotted with a few dozen odd-colored seats was that they were the landing points of the four-time all-star’s longest homers there.
The stadium’s top tier is a uniform hue these days; Howard’s special seats were painted over shortly after the franchise fled to Texas following the 1971 season. Howard, now 59, has stayed in professional baseball, currently working as a base coach with the New York Mets. The smoking habit notwithstanding, he has also stayed in shape, and from a distance looks at least as physically fit as he was during his playing career. (He still sports the same boot-camp buzz cut he wore as a Senator.) In two weeks, Howard will leave his Centreville home and head to Florida for the 36th big-league spring training of his career.
Teasing Washington fans with empty promises of a new team has become an almost yearly ritual for baseball owners and the local media. (The latest ruse, which had the Astros moving here for the 1996 season, was particularly profane.) But pro baseball’s outrageous antitrust exemption, which gives the major leagues much more say about team relocation than the NFL, NBA, or NHL have, has kept it much more stable than those associations. In fact, despite all the bluster, no major-league franchise has actually relocated in 25 years. That’s right, since the Senators.
The Baltimore Orioles, a much-hated rival of the Senators way back when, have served as surrogate Boys of Summer for a lot of ex-Nats fans. But the large turnout to This Is It’s fete of Howard was testament that time and Camden Yards haven’t squelched all the depression.
“I’ve never gotten over it,” sighs Larry Ellis, who was living in Arlington when the Senators morphed into the Rangers. “I grew up playing baseball from sunrise to sundown every single day, just like all of my friends did. Them leaving like they did, that really ripped the heart out of me as far as the game was concerned. I lost interest in baseball. I think back, and I miss it. I miss watching Frank. I think I miss the crack of the bat most of all.”
“When I told my kids I was going to see Frank Howard tonight, they asked me who he was,” adds Fairfax Station resident Gary Grimes with a very sad smile. “I thought about it, and I said, ‘Think of what Cal Ripken means to you. He was my Cal Ripken.’ And I meant it. He was a real-life, larger-than-life hero to me when I was a boy.”
Sitting at a corner table about 20 feet away from Grimes and Ellis, Tommy Sanders plays catch with himself using a soiled, scuffed-up baseball, while working up the courage to go ask Howard to sign the ball. He eventually does. The souvenir, the Manassas native explains, was once a loud foul ball that Howard hit at RFK.
“It was juuuust foul. It would’ve been a homer if it were fair. And on the very next pitch, he did hit a homer! It was his ninth homer of the year. It was against Detroit. In 1971,” Sanders says.
The 1971 Senators were loaded with big-name, no-game characters like free-agency martyr Curt Flood and gambling has-been Denny McLain. Ellis says that he spent a good part of the day of the This Is It soiree reminiscing about that team’s final home appearance, which he also attended.
The last real pro-baseball game hereSenators vs. Yankees on Sept. 30, 1971is something of a black mark on Washington’s sports history. Senators fans, who already knew the team wouldn’t be returning the following season, didn’t internalize their bitterness that Thursday night. Owner Bob Short was burned in effigy in the grandstands all around the stadium, and eventually the angry mob stormed the field, grabbing souvenirs such as bases and players’ uniformswhile the game was still going on. Which explains why the official scorebook shows that the Yankees won that game 9-0: The umpires awarded a forfeit to the visitors.
It wasn’t that a Yankee had pitched a shutout, however. Before mayhem spread to the playing field, Howard had given his followers a more pleasant forget-me-not: One final tape-measure blast.
Howard hasn’t forgotten his last home run in the Senator’s home colors.
“In my career, I hit homers in the World Series and in All-Star games,” he says. “But that one stands out. We were all very aware of what was going on, with such a traumatic experience taking place for so many people, with a club leaving this city and ending 75 years of major-league ball here. And this was the place where I’d enjoyed the very best years of my career. It was a heartbreaking thing to go through. To give my fans some semblance of a thrill right before we had to leave, well, that gives me a special feeling.”
The same desire to please, Howard says, is what motivates him to occasionally breach his anti-nostalgia resolution and appear at functions like the one in Springfield. But even with all the good intentions, This Is It seemed more like a funeral home than a sports bar. While Howard spoke of his last day as a Senator, the reverent souls who’d already gotten his signature were huddled together in groups all over the pub’s main room and speaking in hushed tones, like people at a wake who’d already traipsed by the coffin and paid their last respects. Dave McKenna