Marty Niland: Exacting some revenge on Tigers, 34 years later

If Washington baseball fans know the value of anything, it’s patience.

Fans who were abandoned by two big league franchises and endured 34 years without a team of their own, then witnessed and seven seasons of futility, must feel thrilled to have the Nationals making a run for their second division title in three years.

If that’s not enough, the leader of this year’s pitching staff, Doug Fister, who came in a trade from Detroit, is helping D.C. baseball lovers feel a measure of revenge for one of the greatest swindles in baseball history, some 43 years ago. For many fans, the only thing worse than the deal that sent Denny McLain to from the Tigers to Washington for 1971 was owner Bob Short’s heist of the team to Texas after the season.

Fister arrived in December for a few spare parts. Robbie Ray has struggled in the Tigers rotation after being recalled from the minor leagues, reliever Ian Krol has battled shoulder issues, and utilityman Steve Lombardozzi was traded again to Baltimore and has spent most of the season in the minors.

Fister, meanwhile, is tied for the team lead in wins with 12. He was in line for his 13th on Sunday against Pittsburgh before Rafael Soriano blew a save for the fifth time his season. Fister allowed no earned runs for the third straight start and prevented the game from getting out of hand in the sixth inning. After the Pirates scored twice on Nationals errors, Fister somehow escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam, and the Nats got back in the game in the bottom of the inning.

With a 2.20 ERA that easily leads the starting staff, Fister has gone seven innings or more in all but six of his 18 starts this season. He’s gone less than seven just once in the past two months.

Those kinds of numbers could make fans with even the longest of memories forget what a bust McLain turned out to be.

For the two-time Cy Young Award winner and one-time 31-game winner, the Senators gave up shortstop Ed Brinkman, third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and pitcher Joe Coleman. All three helped Detroit win the American League East in 1972. Coleman and Brinkman also went on to play in the All-Star Game, and Brinkman and Rodriguez would both win Gold Gloves in Detroit.

What the Senators got in return was trouble, and the worst part was, they knew they were getting it. Just two years after winning the American League Cy Young and MVP awards with the first 30-win season in more than 50 years, McLain was suspended for much of 1970. He was disciplined for associating with gamblers, pouring water on sportswriters and carrying a gun on a team flight.

McLain, who had disappointed fans in the nation’s capital by showing up too late to start the 1969 All-Star game at RFK Stadium, displeased them even more when he moved to town. In one of the worst seasons ever by a starting pitcher, he went 10-22 as part of a then unorthodox five-man rotation. No one has lost more games in a season since. After going 3-2 in April, he lost 11 of his next 12 games, including eight in a row from May 18 through June 26. It never got much better.

All the while, McLain reportedly conspired with other players against manager Ted Williams. The Senators skipper, who generally disliked pitchers, would get even by leaving the sore-armed McLain in games to get shelled. His starts included a complete-game, 10-inning loss in which he surrendered six runs on 13 hits, an eight-inning, 7-2 loss that was out of hand in the sixth and a 10-hit, complete game shutout win.

McLain would go on to achieve his greatest notoriety after his playing days were over, serving prison time in the 1980s and 90s after convictions for drug trafficking and racketeering.

Now, though, the Nats are just a few weeks away from making all those bitter memories fade further away. A couple postseason appearances will do that. Along with patience - a lot of patience.

Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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