Anchored by a pair of No. 1 draft picks -- the steady, serious Stephen Strasburg and the brash, bold Bryce Harper -- the Nationals won the N.L. East in 2012, clinching the first playoff appearance by a major league team in Washington since 1933. Beltway Boys by Elliott Smith takes an insider’s look at the Nationals' breakout season and their unique strategy to piece together a contending team. This excerpt examines how the Nationals came into existence and why the franchise started out with the deck stacked against it.
With the Baltimore Orioles blossoming into a perennial playoff and World Series contender, the Senators drifted into irrelevance, and Washington owner Bob Short fell deeper into debt, making him increasingly receptive to the siren call of other cities looking to poach an MLB team. And on September 21, 1971, owners agreed to let Short move the team to Arlington, Texas, where they would become the Texas Rangers. "It was a great deal," Wood said. "[Dallas-Fort Worth was] offering [Short] 10 years of broadcast revenue up front -- roughly $7.5 million. The money would be his to keep, so he moved to Texas, and about three years later, he sold the team. He made out real well."
But D.C. fans had the last word, turning the Senators' last game at RFK into a near riot by storming the field in the ninth inning and stealing souvenirs. The umpires were forced to award the New York Yankees the game in a forfeit, an inglorious -- but perhaps fitting -- end to baseball's turbulent and unsuccessful years in the nation's capital.
The ensuing years were relatively quiet, with dissatisfied teams occasionally using D.C. to gain leverage in their stadium talks. Most fans in the D.C. and Virginia area drifted to the Orioles, who slowly took over the market. "In 1972 the Orioles bought a few billboards around D.C. that showed Boog Powell following through on his swing that said, ‘Take a short drive to see a long drive.' But in '72 with no team in Washington, the Orioles' attendance went down," Wood said. "It didn't catch on. Part of the reason, from my perspective, was that O's used to come to D.C. and beat our brains out.
"It took until 1979, when Edward Bennett Williams bought the O's, for it to click in. Fans in D.C. thought Williams was going to move the team here. Fans in Baltimore thought the same thing, but they were drawing more fans from Baltimore. The Orioles had never drawn more than 2 million, but it took 10 years after Senators left to do so."
So when Selig posited moving the Expos to Washington, there was one man standing in the way of making the move happen -- Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
Since 1972, Angelos' Orioles held the Baltimore-Washington market to themselves, and he considered a new team in D.C. a major affront to his domain, despite the fact that the Senators and Orioles had shared the population just fine in the past. "It was a situation where [MLB] had no place else to go, where there was a park that had 40,000 seats, parking, and people clamoring to write them big checks," Wood said. "So they worked out a deal with Angelos, where he would own no less than 67 percent of the TV rights. They gave him $75 million to get it started. Those were the roots of [Mid-Atlantic Sports Network] MASN. People thought it was, ‘I'll do this and I won't sue you.' That's not true, but Angelos was a litigious guy, and he wouldn't have hesitated to get a temporary restraining order."
On September 29, 2004, despite Angelos' objections, MLB announced the Expos would be moving to D.C. to start the 2005 season. "This is another important step in finalizing the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C.," Selig said. "We are looking forward to finishing the last few steps, including the sale of the ballclub, and the rebirth of the club as the Washington Nationals." The team would start play in venerable (to put it kindly) RFK Stadium, while a new home for the team was found and built. On December 3, 2004, the owners approved the move by a 28–1 vote. (Guess who was the lone dissenting voice.) And baseball was officially back in the nation's capital.
Of course, it wouldn't be that easy. The Nationals still had to navigate through the sordid realm of D.C. politics, Angelos' desire to control Washington's TV rights, and myriad other issues before actually taking the field. And, in reality, the Nationals were in tatters, a shell of an organization given short shrift by the owners, who didn't want to invest any of their money in a team that could potentially cost their own franchises revenues. "By the time they reached the end of their rope in Montreal, they were viewed basically as an orphan of Major League Baseball," said CBSSports. com baseball columnist Scott Miller. "They were the poor street kid that was bruised, and dirty, and taken in off the street, and plopped down in a new home. The first couple of years it was clear it was going to take a long time for them to become relevant."
But on April 4, 2005, those matters were secondary, as the Washington Nationals played their first game, against the Philadelphia Phillies, an 8–4 loss. The Nats would pick up their first win, a 7–3 victory on April 6, in the season's second game behind Brad Wilkerson, who hit for the cycle.
That set the stage for baseball's return to D.C. on April 14, when the Nationals hosted the Arizona Diamondbacks. With more than 45,000 fans in attendance, president George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch, and a feeling of optimism surging through ancient RFK, the Nats earned a 5–3 victory. "In the pageantry and excitement, there was all kinds of hope and promise," Miller said. "But also that sobering reality that it was going to take a while to turn that hope and promise into the kind of baseball that fans were hoping to one day see."
In fact, under the steely tutelage of Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, the team's manager, the Nats overachieved their first season in D.C., tallying a 50–31 mark through their first 81 games and finishing the year a surprising 81–81, a feat that was truly smoke and mirrors. "The first year, there was a lot of attention on them, because it was a brand-new thing," said Mark Zuckerman, who has covered the team since its inception, first for the Washington Times and now for Comcast SportsNet and his own blog, Nats Insider. "The fans were into it, but the organization was not built up at all. There was a barebones staff at RFK Stadium. They all worked out of these trailers and they didn't have a whole lot of prep time. Everyone was kind of overwhelmed by all this. But I don't think anyone understood what was going on. They were just going with the flow. If anything, it made people assume, ‘Oh, this team should be good again soon.'"
But that was not the case. In the aftermath of their exciting D.C. debut, the Nationals were a terrible team. Featuring such unimpressive names as Terrmel Sledge, Deivi Cruz, J.J. Davis, Sunny Kim, Junior Spivey, Nook Logan and a host of other players whose careers came to an end after they washed out of Washington, the Nationals didn't even have the promise of a bright future. "When I first came here, all of us realized the situation the team was in, having been owned by MLB," said Nationals play-by-play man Bob Carpenter, who started broadcasting for the team's Mid- Atlantic Sports Network in 2006. "In Montreal, there was no stadium, low attendance, payroll limitations, and there was no way they were going to survive, so they bring the team here, and a lot of those problems just followed the team.
"We didn't have the scouting system or minor league people at that time. As a broadcaster you go on the air every night and try to put the best foot forward. We weren't hired to worry about where the organization was at. We were hired to announce games, and that's what we did."
Carpenter's job was even more difficult, considering the sweetheart deal that Angelos made with MLB made it practically impossible to find the Nationals on TV. For the team's first two seasons, as cable providers dragged their feet on adding another channel, most fans missed out on following Washington's on-field exploits. The Nationals are still the only team in Major League Baseball not to own their broadcast rights. "At the beginning the TV games were going virtually nowhere outside the production truck," Carpenter said. "In the latter part of the 2006 season, my friends in Arlington [a suburb of D.C.] could finally see the Nationals. Right now, as you look back, it seems a little bit absurd, given the circumstances and situation the organization was in."
Aside from on-field struggles, the other major problems for the Nationals revolved around finding ownership and the construction of a new stadium, both of which were tied to each other.
The Expos' move to Washington was contingent on the team building a new stadium, but that plan relied on the notoriously murky D.C. City Council pushing through a plan for a $581 million stadium that most residents were against, since it was lacking financial support from Virginia and Maryland whose residents would account for a large percentage of the stadium's attendance. After much back and forth between the city and MLB, however, the plans for the $611 million stadium, located near the Anacostia River in the city's southeast district, were finalized on March 7, 2006.
MLB agreed to contribute $20 million toward the stadium's construction but pointedly did not agree to cover cost overruns on the park, which had been one of the primary debates leading up to the agreement. (This would prove to be a win for the league, as the final cost of the stadium came in at an estimated $693 million.) That set the stage for MLB to finally find an owner for its wayward franchise, which loomed over the team for nearly four years.
The selection came down to three groups of finalists: one led by billionaire developer Theodore "Ted" Lerner, another by former Seattle Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan, and one by Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients, the leaders of the Washington Baseball Club. In the end Selig chose the Lerner group, who bought the Nationals off MLB's hands for $450 million and gave the team either the richest or second-richest owner in the league, depending on how you slice the investment pies. "This has been a long journey," commissioner Bud Selig said. "While I do apologize for the time, I think history will prove it maybe was time well spent."
Lerner, who was born in Washington, D.C., made his fortune in real estate, and his Lerner Enterprises was the largest private owner of property in the city. Given his background, it was only fitting that this scion would be the franchise's savior. "Wow, it's been some kind of day," Lerner said during a press conference announcing the sale. "It's something I've been thinking about all my life, from the time I used to pay 25 cents to sit in the bleachers at Griffith Stadium."
While Ted Lerner was the figurehead, his sons would run the day-today ownership roles, with Mark Lerner, a jovial man who sometimes put on a uniform and shagged fly balls in the outfield, becoming the primary face of the organization. "When Commissioner Selig gave us a team, it was a big decision on his part," Mark Lerner said. "First of all my family wants to thank him for having the trust for us to do it the right way. I hope he is proud of what we have become."
-- Excerpted by permission from Beltway Boys by Elliott Smith. Copyright (c) 2013 by Elliott Smith. Published by Triumph Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Available for purchase from the publisher, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Follow Elliott Smith on Twitter @_elliottjsmith.