Nats can make up for decades of mediocrity in DC
It was huge when the Washington Senators -- yes, Senators -- did the impossible in 1969.
They didn't lose 90 or more games. They didn't even finish last. They were celebrated for having the greatest season for a professional baseball team in Washington, D.C., since 1933.
They finished ... fourth.
"Well, I tell you, it was so enjoyable and the fans really got involved, because they were appreciative for having a competitive team," said Hank Allen, 72, who was an outfielder for those Senators. "You know, back then, the old axiom about Washington was, 'First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.'"
Talking about a change -- Washington's Major League baseball team is called the Nationals these days. They play in the National League, not the AL. And instead of losing 90 or more games this year, they'll win at least that many. In fact, the Nationals lead the NL East, and they've spent much of the second half of the season with baseball's best record.
It gets better. Barring the "Mother of all Collapses" during the regular season, and some good fortune in the postseason, the Nationals could become the first team from Washington to reach the World Series since the Senators did so 79 years ago.
Those Senators lost it, but at least they were there.
Allen hopes the Nationals will be there, too.
"I would love to see them go all the way, but I also would just love to see them reach the World Series," said Allen, who has lived in the Washington, D.C., area since playing for the Senators from 1966-70. He is currently a scout for the Houston Astros, and he is loyal to his employers, even though they have baseball's worst record.
Allen laughed, saying, "If the Astros were contending, of course, I'd be rooting for them. But right now, I'm happy for the success that the Nationals are having.
"In my time, since I've been here, I have not known Washington other than to have mediocre ballclubs. And, of course, the teams I played on here were not good teams."
Uh, no. During Allen's time with the Senators, there was prolific slugger Frank Howard -- and not many others worth mentioning. Those were the second set of Senators, by the way. With their attendance nearly as brutal as their fielding, pitching, hitting and running, they bolted town after the 1970 season to become the Texas Rangers.
The first set of Senators played in D.C. from 1901-60, and they also were inept at the gate and on the field. They left to become the Minnesota Twins. Before that, the Senators had a stretch through their trip to the '33 World Series when they were impressive. They produced six Hall of Famers, including iconic pitcher Walter Johnson.
Then the Senators began their decades-old streak of struggling ballclubs. That was awful for Washington baseball fans, but it was splendid for comedians, Broadway and Hollywood. By the mid-1950s, the Senators became fodder for a highly popular musical in New York City called "Damn Yankees," and the musical became an equally successful movie.
"Damn Yankees" involved a die-hard Senators fan named Joe Hardy, who sold his soul to the devil. In exchange, he was granted the chance to become a super-human player to help the Senators leave last place and take the pennant away from the Yankees for a change.
"Yes, I remember the movie," Allen said.
He also remembered something else: Despite Howard crushing pitches with regularity toward the farthest dark hole, Allen's Senators never had anything close to a Joe Hardy. But what about the Nationals?
Stephen Strasburg comes to mind.
This isn't to say the Nationals' flame-throwing right-hander sold his soul to the devil to become one of baseball's most dominating pitchers on the way to leading the NL in strikeouts. It is to say Strasburg is as super human as they come.
And just like Hardy, Strasburg is slated to leave a Washington baseball team right before it plays in the postseason.
You know the deal. Since Strasburg is pitching his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery, Nationals officials decided last spring that he would throw only a set amount of innings. As a result, Hardy -- um -- Strasburg is not slated to start past next week.
"What you're trying to do is to be careful and cautious, and you can't be very critical of them," Allen said of Nationals executives. "There's really no precedent for this. He's already had the surgery, so you don't want to really push him back into it. You've got a guy who has pitched over 200 innings already. But on the other hand, you wouldn't even be thinking about this situation if they weren't contending."
The bottom line: The Strasburg departure won't hurt the Nationals. Not that much -- well, not according to Allen. Let's just say the veteran scout believes Washington finally has a baseball team that features more than just a Frank Howard, or even a Joe Hardy.
"Those three guys they have behind Strasburg in the rotation in Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, they've pitched very well this season," Allen said. "That whole staff has pitched really well. You even have Ross Detwiler, who threw [seven] shutout innings [on Monday]."
As for the rest of Allen's scouting report:
"The first place you want to start with any club is pitching, and pitching is their strength -- not only their starters, but their bullpen," Allen said. "Then you go around and look at their defense. It's very strong in that infield. As a defender at first, [Adam] LaRoche is as good as anybody. Danny Espinosa is a quality second baseman. The shortstop, Ian Desmond, speaks for [himself] as an All-Star. And, of course, Ryan Zimmerman at third base -- you really have to put him at the top of the list.
"The outfield is OK. They probably could use another guy to make them a little stronger, but overall as a team, they've done the job well. Not too many other clubs would come out ahead of them."
Did somebody just say all of that about a Washington team down the stretch of a baseball season?
Sounds like the stuff of another Broadway musical.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.