DESPITE all the talk about fresh starts, there was something oddly retro about the scene, a whiff of the good old boom days. Last Friday defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth stood before the media at Redskins headquarters, shirttail out, diamond studs glinting off his ears, like small stars. He grinned as a man should after signing a seven-year, $100 million contract—the largest ever for a defensive player in the NFL—and the unprecedented sum nearly took on a life of its own. One reporter declared it "staggering," another dubbed it the team's "very own stimulus bill," and when Haynesworth insisted that, even if it had been worth $500 million, the contract couldn't apply any more pressure than he puts on himself, one wag shot back, "Was half a billion out there?"
You half expected to see Gordon Gekko chuckling in a corner. Resisting a national mood of austerity, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder had opened the free-agent season by taking yet another whack at his piggy bank, capping a Washington week in which the four horsemen of our apocalypse—recklessness, arrogance, carelessness and greed—had reappeared. Change? Maybe you can see that down at the White House. But in D.C. sports lately, suspicion, gridlock and money still dominate the conversation.
Consider: The day before Haynesworth's signing, the Nationals fired their point men in the Dominican Republic, Jose Rijo and Jose Baez, in response to an ongoing scandal involving the team's signing and development of prospects in that country. Owner Ted Lerner, coming off a 2008 season in which he repaid the District for the Nationals' new, $688 million stadium with 102 losses and a tepid effort to build a winner, was humiliated on Feb. 17 when it was revealed that in '06 his general manager, Jim Bowden, had paid $1.4 million to a 16-year-old Dominican shortstop, Esmailyn Gonzalez, who turned out to be a 20-year-old named Carlos Alvarez David Lugo.
Then on Sunday, Bowden, who is also the subject of a federal investigation examining his possible role in the alleged skimming of bonus money from Dominican prospects, became the next man to swing. Though insisting he's innocent, Bowden stepped down as G.M., he said, because he had "become a distraction." But in some ways a crippled front office is the least of Lerner's problems. With the franchise's oft-stated devotion to player development in disarray, he's facing a fan base with little patience and less goodwill. Team officials alienated pols and public alike by refusing, after giving the new park glowing reviews, to pay rent last season in a dispute with the city over finishing touches. The Nats averaged just more than 29,000 fans—down from 33,728 at old RFK Stadium in 2005 and the worst showing ever for a major league team in its first year at a new facility. Amid such negativity, the signing of free-agent slugger Adam Dunn barely registers. Forget the honeymoon: The Nats never made the wedding.
But the Redskins have always dominated the market, and watching Snyder toss cash at big-name talent has become a D.C. winter rite. His parade of high-profile coaching busts (Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs 2.0) is almost as long as the list of player fizzles (Jeff George, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Jeremiah Trotter, Adam Archuleta, Jason Taylor), and the notion that Washington is the place where stars go to end a career has become locker room cliché. The Skins' faithful wonder whether the enormously talented 27-year-old Haynesworth will be the second coming, period, or the second coming of Dana Stubblefield, but what's clear is that even as his minions paid lip service to the idea of building through the draft, Snyder simply can't help himself. The same day Haynesworth was introduced, the Skins signed cornerback DeAngelo Hall to a six-year, $55 million deal—the same DeAngelo Hall who was cut by the Raiders in November just eight games into a seven-year contract. Asked to name his favorite member of his new team, Haynesworth got the biggest laugh of the day when he said, "Definitely, I would have to say Dan Snyder."
Really, though, it's not all that amusing. Every so often, the stars align and a city catches a golden moment. It happened for the Bay Area in the late 1980s, for Boston in this decade: Suddenly the teams are great, and the players and franchises and the place itself are raised on a cultural pedestal. The opposite seems to be happening in Washington. The stubbornly profligate Snyder continues to throw good money after bad. In the Nationals' high-handed incompetence, there's more than a hint of the deceit and rule-bending that led us into the financial crisis at hand. Sure, the Wizards won last Friday while President Obama sat courtside and quaffed a beer, but they fired their coach in November and the star, Gilbert Arenas, has missed the whole season with an injury. There will be no playoff run.
Yet there is, yes, hope, and it comes from the most unlikely of sources. No one has ever called D.C. a hockey town, and the Capitals have long been underachievers and afterthoughts—until now. All the talk these days is about how Washington is embracing an outsider with goofy features, a foreign name and a flair for the dramatic, but Alexander Ovechkin got here first. Almost single-handedly he has transformed the Caps into contenders and the Verizon Center into one of the best arenas in hockey; raucous, deafening and fun in a way oh-so-serious D.C. has never been. It's one of the few places in town where—Did you see that goal?—political ambition and status-seeking get swept away by the game.
Indeed, Ovechkin makes Washington feel like a real sports town. It's remarkable to say this about a Russian who signed a $124 million contract—the richest deal in NHL history—but seeing Ovechkin play provides a bit of relief, from the daily spiral of bad news and the drudgery of Washington's other teams. You watch him skate, spin, score and hurl himself into the glass with unfakeable glee, and for a short time, anyway, you don't think about money at all.
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Ovechkin has made Washington feel like a REAL SPORTS TOWN.
ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER