I spent the weekend with my mom in Washington, D.C. This being a sports column, I’m determined to open and close my capital reflections on subject. Among the dozens of softball teams playing on the Mall late last Thursday afternoon was a squad of alumni from Tufts University. No backstop or dirt infield required for Mall ball, the team was warming up with some batting practice just across 17th Street from the World War II Memorial. When I offered a heartfelt “Go Jumbos” from the class of ‘91, the Tufts catcher invited me to join the team. Alas, my home Mall remains the one that runs between Beale Street and the Pinch District. And I’ve never taken my mitt to Main Street
Seeing our young nation’s symbols and monuments in so relatively small a setting is like recognizing a Hollywood star, seen for once -- in the flesh -- outside the bubble of print or electronic media. (Yes, that’s Tom Cruise walking by the Front Street Deli.) My mom -- a Ph.D. in history -- noted the tangible quality of looking at (and walking around) the Lincoln Memorial, summarizing the emotive reaction simply and eloquently: “It’s there!” You can stand where Martin Luther King asked a country to share his dream. You can gaze up, up, up at a giant of a man, both to his contemporaries and modern historians. You can even look east toward the Washington Monument and try and pick out the spot where Jenny jumped in the reflecting pool to hug Forrest. It’s all there.
I walked Washington until my feet blistered last Thursday. (Note to self: socks and sneakers for next D.C. adventure.) But the most uncomfortable I felt was during my stroll around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Gazing at the White House from the northern edge of the grassy Ellipse, I could see two snipers atop the home of the American President. (Pennsylvania Avenue is NOT the place for your kids to play with water guns.) By the time I circled around the three-block estate, that viewing area -- and a long, fenced section of the Ellipse itself -- was shut off to the public. I asked a police officer on a motorcycle if this part of the complex is always closed. He had a quick, three-word reply: “Just right now.” When I asked if there was a special reason for the closing, I got the same three words, only quicker: “Just right now.” Moments later and only a few yards away, a black raven that would make Poe himself shudder flew down to check things out atop that fence dividing tourists from security in the Ellipse. The fact is, on a calm, sunny June afternoon near the residence of the leader of the free world . . . I was spooked. And I walked that much quicker back to Jefferson Drive, where the national museums were quite open to the public.
Which brings me to “The Castle,” the red sandstone centerpiece of the Smithsonian Institution. With enough museum space to fill four years of college research, the Smithsonian offers the west wing of its “castle” as a teaser of sorts, one room with a slice of all there is to see among our national collections. In this room alone I saw a helmet worn by Chuck Yeager, a piece of the Hindenburg, a yellow guitar used by Prince, and a lifemask of President Lincoln himself. Then there was the sports display! A football helmet worn by Hall of Famer Franco Harris, gloves from the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team, ice skates worn -- and autographed -- by Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. I found myself looking for the popcorn vendor.
Washington being a repository of American history, it was all but certain that a visiting sportswriter would find something of note during a weekend of exploration. And sure enough, from a room in the Mayflower Hotel -- where Lyndon Johnson spent his first night in D.C. as a congressional clerk -- I saw something that had never happened before.
For some background, consider that I became a Dallas Mavericks basketball fan in 1983, when the team drafted my college hero, Tennessee’s All-America Dale Ellis. I enjoyed cheering the likes of Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper during the Eighties, but the next decade was downright painful, 10 years without a playoff appearance and two years (1992-94) during which the Mavs won a total(!) of 24 games. So you’ll have to pardon me for giving last Saturday night more significance than some might. Dallas erased an 18-point deficit in Phoenix and won the first conference championship in the franchise’s 26-year history. The Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals? Now there’s something for the National Archives.