The Spirit of '69
Sep 04, 2012 -- 10:27am

   The first of what hopefully will be many steps taken by the Nationals this month, was accomplished Sunday when they assurred themselves of a winning record by beating the Cubs 2-1.  With their eyes on a much bigger prize, a winning record may not seem like much, but given the history of baseball in Washington, it is a big deal.  It's D.C.'s first winning baseball season in 43 years!  Granted, there was a 34-year gap, when we were team-less, but all that we could have hoped for, seems to finally be happening.

     I was thinking about the similarities to where we were coming out of Labor Day weekend in 1969 versus where we are today.  The year of 1969 was magical for the entire country as we put a man on the moon, saw the escalation of the war in Vietnam and experienced Woodstock - not mention Richard Nixon taking office.  It was also a magical sports year around here with Vince Lombardi taking over as coach of the Redskins, Ted Williams becoming manager of the Senators and Lefty Driesell arriving from Davidson to lead Maryland basketball in to the big time.  Only Lefty would provide long-term success, but the possiblities seemed endless as the 60's came to a close.
     Today we have the anticipation of Robert Griffin III and what he might do to solve a Redskins quarterback problem that dates back more than 20 years.  In '69, the quarterback was not the problem.  Although he was 35-years-old, Sonny Jurgensen was among the best in the game.  In fact, in watching him during training camp, Lombardi declared that the NFL would have declared his Packers a monopoly, had Sonny been the quarterback.  And the Packers had an awfully good one in Hall of Famer, Bart Starr.  The anticipation surrounded Lombardi, who actually was nearly three weeks away from coaching his first Redskins game.
     The 1969 regular season didn't open until September 21st.  Out of Labor Day weekend, we still had no idea what to expect from a team that hadn't experienced a winning season in 14 years.  Ultimately, Lombardi led the Redskins to a 7-5-2 season with Sonny leading the league, completing 62 percent of his passes and throwing for 3,100 yards with 22 touchdowns.  It was not only Jurgensen's best year, it was a one he enjoyed the most.  He's said many times over the years that while he never got to play in a Super Bowl, he feels like it was a fair trade getting to play a year under Lombardi.  Unfortunately, it was only a year.  Lombardi died of cancer before the start of the 1970 season.
     The winning-season clinching win for the Nats came in their 134th game of the season.  It put them 30 games over .500.  After 134 games, the '69 Senators were just four games over .500 at 69-65. The 1969 winning season wasn't clinched until September 26th.  The Nats are rolling towards a division title.  The 1969 season was the first played with divisions and the Senators couldn't even dream of winning theirs.  The '69 Orioles (with a young Dave Johnson playing second base) rang up 109 wins and ran away with the division.  The Senators finished fourth - 23 games back.  Still, it was the only winning season the expansion Senators ever enjoyed and Williams gets a great deal of the credit.  Weak hitters like Ed Brinkman and Bernie Allen had career years and Frank Howard not only flirted with .300, hitting .296, he blasted 48 homers. Unfortunately, the Senators slipped the next two years, owner Bob Short made a terrible trade for Denny McLain and the team left town, leaving us baseball barren for 34 years.
     As for Lefty Driesell, he had yet to put Maryland basketball on the map by Labor Day weekend of 1969.  He had recruited local northern Virginia star Jim O'Brien the previous spring, but he didn't really burst on the scene until the spring of 1970.  With the Final Four (they called it the national semifinals in those days) being played at Cole Field House, Lefty told all the local and national reporters his plan to make Maryland, "The UCLA of the east."  And it would start with the two stars he'd just recruited in Len Elmore and Tom McMillen, who was the number one recruit in the country and had been the first high school player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  Lefty never quite lived up to his boast, but with the help of Elmore and McMillen, Maryland went on to be a basketball power and a consistent winner in the 17 years he coached in College Park.
     It all fell apart after the death of Len Bias and the three-season disaster under Bob Wade.  It was left to Gary Williams to pick up the pieces and finally achieve what Lefty had promised.  Now it's up to Mark Turgeon to make Maryland a basketball power again.
     So as we launch the sports calendar of 2012-2013, the names of Mike Shanahan, Davey Johnson and Mark Turgeon don't have the star power of Vince Lombardi, Ted Williams and Lefty Driesell, but the anticipation of the futures of their teams is every bit as great.  Let's all enjoy watching it unfold.

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