Are the Nationals cursed?

Could the location of the team's new stadium explain its mediocrity?

September 13, 2010|By Mark Greenbaum and David O'Leary

One of the few positives that accompanies the end of summer is the arrival of pennant fever which allows a lucky handful of cities to harbor sandlot dreams of October glory. Sadly, for yet another season, the playoffs will elude both of our local teams. The Orioles have, at least, perked up under their new manager, but the Nationals? Their rusty collection of mediocre arms, tired bats, and underwhelming prospects is locked into another last-place finish.

The sting of this year's disappointment was worsened by the announcement that Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals' top young phenom who struck out 14 batters in his first big league start, was felled by a potentially career-ending arm injury. The devastating loss of the Nats' savior after Mr. Strasburg's tantalizingly thrilling start leads to the possibility that the franchise isn't just plagued by rank mismanagement and ill-timed injuries — the typical banes of mediocre clubs — but something much more nefarious. The Nationals may be suffering from a baseball curse, the curse of Abraham Lincoln's Assassins.

Formerly the Montreal Expos, the Nationals were attracted to Washington largely on the promise of a gleaming new District-funded stadium that would allow the franchise to concentrate its resources on the field. So far, the team hasn't flourished as planned. The Nats have averaged 93 losses a year, finishing out of the divisional cellar just once. This year, they are on similar pace and, not surprisingly, have had one of the worst home attendance records in the league.

While the Nationals' woes can be traced to a legacy of administrative incompetence and player failures, the team's location at the Washington Navy Yard should also be considered as a source of their ineptitude. Nationals Park sits directly on an infamous stretch of the Anacostia River where authorities conducted the autopsy of John Wilkes Booth on the ironclad U.S.S. Montauk anchored at the Navy Yard. Next door at Fort McNair, Booth's co-conspirators were held and tried at the country's first federal penitentiary, and four of them were hanged there in July 1865. Booth himself was buried there until his remains were later moved.

Nestled beside where Lincoln's killers were executed, the placement of the stadium may have unwittingly exposed the Nationals to the conspirators' vengeful ghosts. That the apparitions of Booth and his gang would aim their ghoulish enmity on modern baseball may seem strange, but it makes sense given President Lincoln's affinity for what became our national pastime.

An athletic man in his youth, Lincoln purportedly played town ball, one of the precursors to baseball, around Springfield and later in Washington. A popular account recalls the Rail Splitter's regular participation in a children's' town ball game in Maryland, coattails flapping, and legend holds that Lincoln delayed meeting with Republicans bringing news of his nomination for president until after he had his next turn at bat in a game.

Lincoln was also a spectator, often at the White Lot, a field behind the Executive Mansion on what is now the Ellipse. Perhaps seeking to escape news of rebel victories in the Seven Days Battles which raged just south of Washington in the summer of 1862, Lincoln took in a game on a circus ground. With his beloved son Tad between his knees, Lincoln sat on the first base line and reportedly cheered like "the most enthusiastic fan of the day."

For Booth and his co-conspirators, Lincoln's affection of old-time base ball might be enough for them to focus their eternal hatred against it, and the sport's popularity in the North during the Civil War, particularly among federal soldiers, would have reinforced their disgust of the burgeoning recreation. Haunting the Nats could be a degree of revenge against the residents of the loathed Union capital.

To be sure, it may be presumptuous to assign a curse to a franchise not yet in its second decade of existence; after all, the Nats' early losing tradition is not unlike the troubles of new franchises and is certainly a natural part of growth in competitive baseball. Furthermore, bad luck is often used as a handy crutch to excuse poor play.

But more than in other sports, fateful luck is part of the sport's very DNA as its rich, often-quirky history is weeded with superstitions, rituals, and other mystical quantities traced back to the game's earliest days. Losing droughts are often traced to hexes like the Curse of the Bambino which was the perceived cause of the Boston Red Sox's four score and six years without a championship, or the Chicago Cubs' still-potent Curse of the Billy Goat. The Nationals too seem utterly bereft of any good fortune.

The ghosts of Lincoln's killers may have also played a role in the fraught history of Washington's departed Senators teams, which won only one World Series in 60 years. While the Senators played at the long-gone Griffith Park, which was situated in the District's Northwest section, the spirits of vilified miscreants could have traveled uptown to preside over the Great Emancipator's game.

Perhaps thumbing their nose at any curse, the Nats recently signed one of the best hitting prospects in years, leading to renewed fan visions of a bright future at Nationals Park.

Unfortunately, these dreams may never materialize if the ghosts of Lincoln's killers continue to screech and swirl along the banks of the Anacostia.

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