A FUTURE THAT NEVER HAPPENED
It may seem hard to believe today, but back then, the Senators' future seemed bright. At least it did to a 13 year old kid.
Seven years after joining the National League - and enduring records far worse than the Senators did during the same time period - the New York Mets went from 73-89 in 1968 to 100-62 and a World Series victory against the Orioles one year later. The Senators went 86-76 in 1969; why shouldn't they make that same leap forward that the Mets did? The Mets won 27 more games in 1969 than they did in 1968. The Senators would only have to win 14 more games to get to the century mark in victories in 1970. Bob Short, speaking to Warner Wolf in a "Meet the Senators" program in March, said "I see no reason why we can't have a Mets-type season here in Washington."
The Senators saw a marked offensive improvement in several of its players in '69, improvements we attributed to Ted Williams' prowess has a hitting coach. These were the most improved players in 1969 compared to the previous year
- 1B] Mike Epstein: .. .234-13-33 ----> .278-30-85
- SS] Eddie Brinkman ..187-0-6 ----> .266-2-43
- 3B] Ken McMullen ....248-20-62 ----> .272-19-87
- CF] Del Unser .........230-1-30 ----> .286-10-57
I had no reason to believe that those players wouldn't continue to improve in 1970, or that Casey Cox and Jim Hannan wouldn't continue to do a credible job in the back of the Senators' rotation. Of course, the Senators took a step backward in 1970, winning only 70 games. Short, impatient all year long, traded Kenny McMullen to the California Angels for Rick Reichardt and Aurelio Rodriguez (a trade that helped the club over the remainder of the season).
Even though 1970 was a disappointment, I nonetheless had high hopes for the Senators' future. The farm system, barren during the mid 1960's, had plenty of talented players almost ready for the big leagues.
The "big three" were Jeff Burroughs, Tom Grieve and Toby Harrah. Burroughs, the top pick in the 1968 draft, batted .355 at Wytheville in 1969 -- his first year as a professional. He jumped to 'AAA' Denver the next year and batted .269-13-71 as a 19 year old facing competition five to ten years older than him. On the day Burroughs played his first game with the Senators, team announcer Shelby Whitfield said to his partner Ron Menchine, "Burroughs has all the makings of being one the best players ever to don a major league uniform. How great will he be? If he were to, say in 1973 or 1974, bat .340 with 45 homers and 120 RBI's, I wouldn't be surprised one bit." In 1973, Burroughs batted .279-30-85. He turned out to be a slightly above average player, but certainly not the super-star that so many predicted he'd become.
Before Burroughs came along, the player most talked about was outfielder Tom Grieve. Though he never put up sterling numbers at Geneva, or Burlington, or Salisbury, many believed that it was just a matter of time before Grieve became a stud with the bat. He had line drive power and a good eye. We thought that he'd one day put up numbers similar to what Ryan Zimmerman did last year. Playing for 'AAA' Denver in 1971, Grieve finally played up to his potential, batting .272-19-61. He had a relatively obscure major league career, save his .255-20-81 career year in 1976.
Interestingly, both Jeff Burroughs and Tom Grieve had sons who played in the major leagues (Sean Burroughs and Ben Grieve).
Toby Harrah was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies, but was selected in the Rule V draft the very next year by the Senators. He joined Washington in 1970, when he was just 20 years old. He became a full time shortstop in 1972, and was one of the premier shortstops in the American League over the next decade.
There were other players who I thought would make a difference in Washington. Bill Gogolewski went 14-5, 2.47 for Pittsfield in 1970 before joining the Senators. Lenny Randle had blazing speed and was solid middle-infielder. Glen Adams hit for high average and had good gap power. Pete Mackanin was a tremendous fielder. Rick Waits was called a pitcher with "unlimited potential." And Billy Madlock, even in the minor leagues, was a "hitting machine."
I thought things looked good for the Senators' future in 1971. Don Mincher, 33, obtained from the Athletics with Paul Linblad for Mike Epstein and Darold Knowles (yeah, another bad trade by Bob Short), hit .291-10-45 in just 100 games with the Senators (.291-19-85 based on a 162 game season). Davey Nelson batted .280 and stole 17 bases playing second base (and Lenny Randle was almost ready to make the jump from the minor leagues). Toby Harrah was showing his potential in limited duty with the Senators. There was no real 3rd baseman in '71, but it was obvious that Bill Madlock was going to be a special player, and was only a couple of years away from the major leagues. The addition of Burroughs and Grieve to an already talented outfield meant that the Senators were able to trade from a position of strength. Dick Billings, who batted .246-6-48 in '71, seemed like a long-term answer behind the plate. The starting rotation, with Dick Bosman, Pete Broberg and Denny McLain (yes, I thought he'd return to form) already pitching for the Senators, and Rick Waits ready to join them, looked solid. Paul Linblad, obtained from the Athletics, seemed a quality replacement for Darold Knowles as the team's closer.
Of course, all the excitement went for naught when the team moved to Texas. The Rangers ended up having just five winning seasons over the next sixteen years. Many of the players I thought were "can't miss" never succeeded in the major leagues.
But it didn't matter that most of those players ended up being insignificant major leaguers. One of the most joyful things a kid could do back then was read, then re-read the Sporting News Minor League Report, guessing who, and who wouldn't be playing for the Senators in the coming years.
For those of you too young to remember, Washington had a basketball team a few years before the Bullets moved from Baltimore. The Oakland Oaks moved to D.C. and stayed a year before moving on to Norfolk where they became the Virginia Squires. They were known as the Washington Caps.
Trivia Question: Who is the player shown in this image (he was a star in both the ABA and NBA) and what were the colors of the Caps' uniform - and no, it wasn't red, white and blue.
He wrote back a 3 page letter and told me all about his first year in the major leagues.
I cherish that letter = still have it.
When the Team became The Virginia Squires and had Julius Erving-they played at various arenas around The Commonwealth. The Scope in Norfolk, Richmond Coliseum, but my favorite--the old, then, George Mason College, Gym on campus-in Fairfax. Saw them play twice there
The colors of the Caps uniform was green and gold. The owner refused to change the colors when he moved to D.C.
Cecil Travis died yesterday morning on his farm in Georgia. He was 93. (Link to obit: http://www.ajc.com/sports/content/sports/stories/2006/12/16/1217travis.html) Some would say Roger Peckinpaugh or Joe Cronin was better than Travis, but Travis' career had that "what might have been" element to it. Certainly today's Nats fans need to know his story of talent and service to his country, if they don't already.
Cecil Travis is one of those wonderful Washington baseball players that no one know about. I heard about his death, and I have begun the process of writing a story about him. It may take a few days -- I want it to be "just right."
Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I love history in general, and I love Senators' history specifically.
Keep an eye out for the story. It may be Monday or Tuesday before it's finished.
Wow, I guess never reaching the potential they showed in the minors must run in those families.