Now that the Washington Nationals have won their first post-season game – the first time a baseball team in Washington won a playoff game since October 5, 1933 (their only win in a five-game World Series loss to the New York Giants), it might be instructive to take a look at the experience of other teams in these parts in their first experience in the post-season.
First, there are our Capitals. In their first eight years in the league, starting with the 1974-1975 season, the Caps averaged 54 standings points a season (in an 80-game schedule) and never climbed abve 70 points. They hit that mark in the 1981-1982 season. But in the 1982-1983 season they made it to the promised land for the first time.
Caps fans will remember that year as the one in which the Caps and their brand new General Manager David Poile pulled the trigger on a trade that probably saved the franchise in D.C., picking up defenseman Rod Langway, along with forwards Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin, and defenseman Brian Engblom from the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for forward Ryan Walter and defenseman Rick Green.
The quartet solidified a developing lineup, and the Caps finished the season 39-35-16, third in the Patrick Division. It earned them a shot at the defending Stanley Cup champions, the New York Islanders. It was an odd series, and not only for the Caps making an appearance. It was one of only three of eight first round series featuring an “All-American” matchup (it was the last time to date that all active Canadian teams made the playoffs).
The Islanders dispatched the Caps in Game 1, 5-2, perhaps leaving the impression that the upstart Caps would be no more than a speed bump in the Islanders’ road to their fourth straight Stanley Cup. But the Caps returned the favor in Game 2, besting the Islanders by a 4-2 margin on Long Island. The win might have fueled a sense of hope among Caps fans that an upset was possible as the clubs took the series to Landover, MD. What it did, though, was get the Islanders’ attention. New York outscored the Caps 12-5 in Games 3 and 4 to take the best-of-five series, three games to one. Bobby Gould scored five goals in the four-game series, almost matching the combined output of his teammates (six). No other Cap had more than one goal in the four-game series.
If one could find solace in the series loss it was that while the Caps were but a speed bump on the Islanders’ road to that fourth straight Stanley Cup, that was more than could be said for the Islanders’ finals opponent; the Islanders swept the Edmonton Oilers in four games by a combined 17-6 margin in goals. We will leave out the fact that Edmonton would win five of the next seven Stanley Cups.
The “Baltimore Bullets” had already been a well-traveled team, the franchise having originated as the Chicago Packers in 1962, a team that won only 18 games in one 80-game season in that incarnation. They became the Chicago Zephyrs in 1963 and won 25 games. The Midwest not agreeing with the club, it became the “Baltimore Bullets” in 1964, and Baltimore would be home for the next ten seasons. The club would make it as far as the NBA finals once – in 1971 – but would be no match for the Lew Alcindor-led Milwaukee Bucks, who crushed the Bullets in a four-game sweep, winning three of the four games by double-digit margins.
After a 1972-1973 season in which the team won 52 games and made it to the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Bullets moved to College Park, MD, while their new home – the Capital Centre – was being finished in Landover. Still being in Maryland, the team apparently could not bring itself to adopting the city of Washington in its name, becoming the “Capital Bullets” for one season. That being the case, we think it appropriate to consider the following season – the 1974-1975 season played out of Capital Centre – as the club’s first in ‘Washington” (although the “Washington Bullets” played in Landover, which was outside the Capital Beltway, not inside it as it was when playing in College Park as the “Capital Bullets”).
That 1974-1975 season was the first and, to date, only season in which the Bullets/Wizards franchise won 60 games, posting a 60-22 record. It was a team that was loaded – Elvin Hayes and Phil Chenier each averaged more than 20 points a game; Hayes and Wes Unseld averaged more than ten rebounds a game. Kevin Porter averaged eight assists a game. In the post season the Bullets were taken to seven games by the Buffalo Braves before blowing out the Braves in a 115-96 Game 7. They were taken to six games by the Boston Celtics before winning that Game 6 by a 98-92 margin. But that’s when the music stopped for the Bullets. The Golden State Warriors swept Washington in four games in the finals, and even though the Bullets would win their only title in 1978, this performance was perhaps the first instance of what would later become the “Curse O’ Les Boulez.”
Once upon a time there was a team called the Orange Athletic Club, a team that began as an independent football team in Orange, New Jersey, in 1887. And that they were for 32 years, until they decided to call themselves the Orange A.C. Golden Tornadoes (which sounds like a smoothie drink you might find in a mall food court or at a cheap bar at happy hour). The Golden Tornadoes played another ten seasons as an independent before dropping the “A.C. Golden” from their name and joining the National Football League as the Orange Tornadoes.
“Orange” became “Newark” in 1930 when the team changed cities. Bad move. The Tornadoes won one game in that 1930 season, went through three coaches, and had their rights sold back to the NFL. Even though the league offered the defunct franchise to the highest bidder, no one wanted it (to be fair there was a depression going on). In 1932, however, Boston was awarded an NFL franchise, and the core of the old Tornadoes became members of the Boston Braves.
From 1932 through the 1935 season, the Braves were the epitome of mediocrity, posing a combined record of 17-23-5. What could be done to kick-start the club? Why, a name change, of course. The Boston Braves became the Boston Redskins in 1936, posted their only above-.500 season (7-5-0), and reached the NFL championship, losing to the Green Bay Packers, 21-6.
The Redskins celebrated by moving the whole enterprise to Washington. Actually, the team’s inability to draw flies to Fenway Park probably had something to do with the move. And it worked out pretty well, especially when the club was about to break in arguably its best player ever – quarterback Sammy Baugh, who they drafted out of Texas Christian University. The club improved on its last season in Boston, going 8-3-0 in its inaugural season in Washington. This was long before wild-cards and conference championships and that sort of month-long nonsense that is the NFL playoffs today. Back then it was an Eastern Division, a Western Division, and the teams that won their divisions met in the NFL Championship Game (without Roman numerals).
The Redskins and Chicago Bears traded leads in the title game, the Skins drawing first blood in the first quarter, but relinquishing the lead on a pair of touchdowns by the host team. Washington tied the game at 14-all in the third quarter, but Chicago got it back to carry a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter. Then it was Sammy Time. Baugh completed two touchdown passed in the fourth quarter to give the Redskins a 28-21 win it their first year carrying the banner for Washington.
So there you go. The Nats are 1-0 in their first playoff appearance, leaving Washington teams 2-2 in opening games as a playoff participant (Redskins and Nationals wins, Bullets and Capitals losses). The Nationals are not as late to the party in making their first playoff appearance (eighth season) as were the Capitals (their ninth season), but not nearly as quick as the Bullets or Redskins, both of whom appeared in the post-season in their first years in Washington and both reaching the title round of their respective leagues.
And that leaves open the question, will the Nationals merely be somebody’s “speed bump” on the way to a World Series title, as the Caps were for the Islanders on their trip to a Stanley Cup, or will they make their own mark by reaching the title round, as the Bullets and Redskins did in their first seasons here?
Here’s hoping we have another couple of weeks to get an answer to that question.