Last Men Out

Thirty-four years later, baseball and the final Senators game still resonate in the lives of the men in Washington's last lineup.

Cover Story

April 03, 2005|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

The last time the starting lineup of a major league baseball team was announced in Washington's RFK Stadium, Richard Nixon was president, hot dogs cost 40 cents and nine men of varying talents, all living out their boyhood dreams, took to the field under a dreary sky for a final game as the home team, at least in this particular home.

They were the Washington Senators - a team not known for generating much in the way of excitement, wins or revenue.

Ten days after team owner Bob Short, bemoaning declining profits and poor fan support, announced in September 1971 that he was moving the team to Texas, just 14,460 paid fans showed up for the final game.

For many of those and for most of the players, emotions ran more bitter than bittersweet. About 4,000 fans crashed the gates rather than buy tickets. Some carried "anti-Short" banners; others hung effigies of Short over stadium railings, setting one on fire.

And it would only get uglier. The departure of the national pastime from the nation's capital 34 years ago was marred by ill will, pillaging and - horror of horrors in a sport that prides itself on its tidy symmetry - a final game left unfinished.

Still, life went on, even after baseball, for that last Senators lineup: the nine players who started the game, the relief pitcher who tried to finish it and the late manager whose body is cryogenically preserved at an Arizona "life extension" laboratory.

Contrary to how the players may have felt at the time, they didn't stay young forever, and they weren't invulnerable. Try as they might to cling to a young man's game, only about half continue making a living from baseball, the rest slipping back into life as mere workaday mortals - selling cars, hawking vinyl siding, working on assembly lines.

Today, the youngest of them is 54, the oldest 68. But on Sept. 30, 1971, they were major leaguers, soured by the turn of events but hoping to go out with a win as RFK's public address system - as it will again today when the Washington Nationals play their first exhibition game there - crackled to life:

And now, ladies and gentlemen, here's today's starting lineup.

Batting in the leadoff position and playing center field, No. 37, Elliott Maddox ...

Elliott Maddox, who drove in the last run the Senators would ever score, is 57 now and taking some time to figure out the next step in a life after baseball that has included legal trouble, marital strife, numerous jobs and 13 surgeries, one of which saw his heart stop.

"Dying was the greatest thing that ever happened to me in life," he said. "You learn what's valuable and what isn't, how important friends and family are. You wake up and see the sun and it's a beautiful day. You wake up and it's raining and it's still a beautiful day - such a gorgeous rainfall."

That rosy attitude is a far cry from the kind of antagonism that led manager Ted Williams to dub Maddox and four other players "the underminers."

Maddox had come to Washington begrudgingly, and with a strike against him - as part of an unpopular trade that brought Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain to D.C. Maddox, who was attending college at the University of Michigan when he read in a newspaper he'd been traded, didn't want to leave - either the Tigers or college.

"The '70s was a great time," Maddox said. "There was total unrest and anarchy in the country. It was beautiful. In college, we would demonstrate every day. If there wasn't anything to demonstrate about, we'd demonstrate about it being boring."

Maddox, a left-winger, and Williams, about as far as one can go in the other direction, clashed regularly. When Williams held court on the art of hitting a baseball - something many believe he did better than any human - Maddox would take exception.

"Your theories only work if you're 6-foot-4, left-handed, with great eyesight and Superman-like reflexes, and probably only if you're white," Maddox recalled telling Williams.

"I'd say, `Henry Aaron doesn't hit that way.' He'd say, `Shut up, I don't want to talk about him.' I'd say, `Roberto Clemente doesn't hit that way.' He'd say, `You're really starting to aggravate me.' And then I'd bring up Willie Mays, and he'd walk away [ticked] off."

Along with McLain, a 30-game winner in Detroit who pitched poorly with the Senators, Maddox and three other players seized on the label Williams gave them. Near the season's end, "We had a goodbye party at McLain's house with a big banner that said `underminers club,' " Maddox said.

After two years as a Texas Ranger, Maddox was traded to the New York Yankees, playing just 20 miles from where he grew up in northern New Jersey.

In 1975, Maddox was playing the best ball of his career. But, while chasing a fly ball in Shea Stadium, the Yankees' temporary home that year, his foot got caught in a sprinkler head, causing a knee injury that ended his season and, later, his career. He filed a $12 million lawsuit against Shea Stadium, but it was dismissed.

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