October 11, 2004

The Name Game, Round 2

Today's Musical Selection: See above.

Hello again, everyone! Well, my Friday column on naming the new Washington baseball team generated some interesting comments. I've always thought that I have bright, thoughtful readers, more so than many blogs, and this latest round of comments just affirmed my belief. (And even if I wasn't shamelessly sucking up to you, The Reader, in a bid for more comments, I'd still believe it.)

Better still, not only were all three comments thoughtful, they each articulated a different position. It's possible to make a sound case for several different names, as my commenters have shown. Let's take a look at their respective arguments.

Let's start with m good buddy Papa Shaft, who is with me on the choice of "Senators" with a populist case to support me, and has a few words for those who want to honor the Negro Leagues with "Grays."

Excellent points all around.

There's one thing I'd like to say to the people supporting the Grays name - does this really accomplish what you're trying to do? You say that naming the MLB team after the Homestead Grays honors Negro League ballplayers.

I say, what kind of honor is that? People are going to forget about the name connection once the newness of the team wears off, and won't take the time to learn about the long (largely forgotten, mind you) history of the Negro Leagues and black Americans in baseball. Naming the team after the Grays really amounts to nothing more than a token PC gesture - just like many token PC gestures from white America to black Americans.

If the people supporting the Grays name are serious about truly honoring the Negro Leagues, why not (as MF suggests) push for the creation of a Negro Leagues museum inside the new ballpark with memorabilia, video exhibits, classic uniforms, and an entire sections focusing on the Homestead Grays. And on top of that, push for the museum to be open every day of the year, not just on game days. This would do far more to educate the public about the Negro Leagues than simply naming a team ever would, and would only be appropriate for one of the top cities in the country for black Americans.

Besides, why not unite behind a name that the entire area - white, black, brown, yellow and green - supports: Senators. In terms of fan support, Senators spanks the Grays, with nearly twice the number of votes in a recent Washington Post poll (41% of the vote to 21%). Even the top three choices behind Senators ("Grays", "Nationals" and "Choose Something Else") didn't add up to the number of votes in favor of Senators. The area's baseball fans have spoken, and the eventual owners of this team would be downright suicidal [to make a different choice].

I wonder if people really forget about the connections of the "Grays" name as quickly as Papa believes, but given the microsecond attention spans of the American public, I think he might be right. And if that does happen, Washington will be saddled with an uninteresting name with no real appeal. (And doesn't "Grays" sound a lot better with "Homestead" in front of it? Try it.)

Either way, Papa's absolutely right that just calling the team "Grays" isn't going to do it. If the team's attempt to evoke the Negro Leagues stops with the name, that's a cynical attempt to move merchandise and it will do nothing to build a connection to the African-American community. A museum would do much more to honor the Negro Leagues than a name ever could.

As for his polls supporting the "Senators" name, I've not seen any studies on the sentiments of the green people of the Fedroplex, but local polls do suggest sentiment running very strongly in favor of the Senators name, something I'm sure no ownership group would ignore. But if I might play devil's advocate for a second, think of "Senators" as the incumbent in this particular race. Generally, incumbents have wide leads in the early stages of a race, just based on name recognition. It'll be interesting to see if, as time goes on, the name "Senators" starts to lose ground as fans become more accustomed to the other choices. (John Kelly of the Post said in his Friday chat that this was happening for him.)

Next up was my man Frinklin, who supports the "Grays" name and had an answer for Papa Shaft:

I have to wonder why DC would be so interested in naming the new team after a franchise that failed twice. Not only did the Senators leave town twice, they were terrible on the field 95% of the time too.

The name Grays, other than just being cool, also celebrates a legacy of success. The Homestead Grays are a franchise with great history of success, something that Senators doesn't have. Baseball is about connecting with history, and with the choice in front of you, isn't it better to connect with the successful history?

Hell, have the museum too. And there needs to be two statues outside the stadium: Walter Johnson and Buck Leonard. While Josh Gibson was a more famous Gray, Leonard spent almost his entire career there, which was unheard of in Negro League Baseball.

Regardless of the name, forget about the stadium being named the Voting Booth. Like all new stadiums, it will be WhoeverPaysTheMost Field.

Why are we interested in renaming the team after the twice-departed and often-lousy Senators? Because that's our team. That's our history, for better or worse. The team's caliber of play is immaterial.

Oh, and I have to call you on your assertion that the Senators were "terrible 95% of the time." Let's be generous to your argument and define "terrible" as having a losing record. In 71 seasons of Senators baseball, we had 51 losing seasons. Bad? Absolutely. 95%? No way. We won the Series in 1924, as I mentioned Friday, but we also went to the Series in 1925 and 1933. Our last winning season was 1969, a mere two years before we lost the second team. Over the years of our existence, the Phillies had a worse collective record, and the Braves, Browns/Orioles and A's were barely better. Contrary to the world's collective memories, we weren't the only struggling team out there. Yet no one ever asks the Phillies to ditch their name.

I tease my Cub-fan friends that if their team ditched the "Cubs" name for something like "Grizzlies" and blew up Wrigley Field and replaced it with a symetrical Astroturf stadium, the team would immediately start ripping off Series wins. The point behind the jibe is that while certain team names may not be synonymous with victory, they are synonymous with the city and its history, and a lot of fans appreciate that.

Now, about the "Grays" name... what exactly makes it "cool"? If the name had never been associated with Homestead, it wouldn't even come close to being considered. It's a bland, unappealing name on its own. It's only the Negro League connection that makes it palatable and interesting.

I second absolutely your request for statues of Walter Johnson and Buck Leonard outside the new stadium. Both Leonard and Josh Gibson are honored in the Ring of Honor at RFK Stadium, as they should be, and they should be honored in the new facility.

And I know, Frinklin, that the stadium name will be sold off to a corporate sponsor. I was suggesting the Voting Booth as an unofficial nickname.

Finally, I present an offbeat suggestion from the estimable BallWonk:

Good points, and arguments like yours have softened my own resistance to the Senators name. (Softened, but not reversed; I was raised a Twins fan, and so it is an article of faith rather than reason to me that the Washington Senators now play in Minnesota, and that's history you just don't mess with.)

But if we're in the mood, we could pay tribute to Washington's dismal baseball heritage - which basically amounts to lose, lose, lose, 1924, lose, lose, lose, lose entire team, gain new team, lose, lose, lose, lose entire team again - AND the Negro Leagues AND have a catchy name. Just go for the Washington Potomacs. The Potomacs were an independent negro-league team in 1923, formed by the legendary Ben Taylor. Sadly, the only thing legendary about the rest of the team was its talent; it had almost none. The Potomacs joined the Eastern Colored League in 1924 and finished 6th out of 8. They finished last in 1925 and moved to Wilmington. (Ye gads, was the indignity of playing segregated ball for a bad team not enough without having to move to Delaware?)

So the Potomacs offer all the historical "charm" of the Senators - losses and relocation - and an even older Negro-League tie-in than the Grays and with a catchier name to boot. Plus the Potomac is the one thing DC, Virginia, and Maryland have in common, and the new ballpark will be almost within sight of the Potomac. And in terms of nicknames, we'd probably wind up being the Macs. If someone offers me my choice of tickets to the Senators, the Grays, or the Macs, I'm taking the Macs tix every time.

See my above remarks about the "dismal" Washington baseball tradition. It's interesting that you raise the question of the "real" Senators. The original franchise did convey to Minnesota, but the Senators name and trademarks did not. They were transferred to the expansion franchise, and they followed that team to Texas. And those of us in Washington would argue that the only "real" Senators are the ones that play here.

I like the spirit behind your suggestion, though, BallWonk. "Potomacs" is a much more interesting name than "Grays." Also, the Potomacs were truly Washington's team. Though the Grays played a lot of games in Washington, they were Pittsburgh's (or, properly, Homestead's) team.

Were my mind not made up in favor of the Senators, I'd be very happy to join you in the Potomacs camp. I like the sound of the name, I like the "Macs" nickname, and I like the regional tie. Very well argued.

While I still favor Senators, I acknowledge the validity of arguments in favor of other names. (Some other names, anyway; "Washington Monuments" is still idiotic, the kind of name that better befits a fantasy team.) Anyone who wishes to press a case for another name, please feel free to leave a comment.

I did watch the second presidential debate, and I'm not going to bother with a full work-up, since it's been several days and I'm sure you've gotten the details elsewhere. I scored this one as a clean win for Kerry. He was poised, articulate, and presidential, while Bush was impulsive, inarticulate and overly heated. Bush did improve as the debate wore on, but Kerry got under his skin quite visibly. Bush is not comfortable speaking in front of a non-supportive audience, and he has few if any verbal gifts. Kerry was long-winded and he had a habit of circling back to answer previous questions, but he looked more leaderly and poised than Bush. And as our president said, "Those aren't make-up facts." (I was, however, relieved to see that he will not appoint any Supreme Court justices who support the Dred Scott decision. We dodged a bullet there.)

That's all for today. See you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at October 11, 2004 02:44 PM

I suppose I could get behind "Washington Potomacs" as a distant third behind Senators and Nationals. I don't think it sounds great and I'm not exactly enthusiastic about the idea, but it's a sight better than Grays and at least has a bit of local wackiness to it (like the "Philadelphia Phillies" or the "New York Met(ropolitan)s").

I think the main problem with Grays is one of the things that MF mentioned - it's dead boring. In order for a sports team name to be marketable, it needs to be either: a) exciting, or b) have some sort of traditional connection to the city.

To that end, let's take a look at another Senators - the Ottawa NHL team. Sure, the new owners in 1992 could have named the team something like Ice Breakers, Igloos or Thrashers (how ridiculous!), but instead they went with a traditional name that goes back to the earliest days of the NHL. And fans in the area overwhelmingly supported the name Ottawa Senators, a fact proven by polls at the time. People loved the choice because, in their minds, there was really nothing else that an Ottawa hockey team could or should be called. Ottawa Senators is traditional, and had a tight connection to the area, even if it hadn't actually been used in decades.

In the case of the Washington Senators, we have an even stronger case. People want this name because many actually went to Senators games as kids (not a lot of Ottawans could say that back in the early '90s), and want to pass those memories, those experiences along to their kids. And with baseball, people just tend to like tradition, particularly here on the east coast. The Arizona Diamondbacks may work better out west, where tradition is thrown in the shredder with Enron documents, but here in the east it's traditional names that are far more marketable: Yankees. Red Sox. Braves. Orioles. Indians. Phillies. Reds. Senators.

It just works. And people in this area seem to agree on that. In the end, that's really all that matters.

Posted by: Papa Shaft at October 11, 2004 08:14 PM

While I agree with Papa Shaft that a Negro Leagues museum at the new ballpark would be great, the unaware may read into his comments that there's no remembrances of the Negro Leagues anywhere. I assume, though, that he knows the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is alive and well in Kansas City, and well worth a visit.

Posted by: Carl at October 12, 2004 03:20 PM
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