Wednesday, May 24, 2017 This Week's Paper

The Chief

// Chad Cordero was a beloved member of the team that brought major league baseball back to the nation’s capital in 2005. It has been two years since he has pitched in a big-league game. Now he is in Tacoma, where he is very close to recovering a career that was threatened by a serious arm injury.

Before the 2005 Major League season, when baseball returned to Washington, D.C. and a pitcher named Chad Cordero won the National League Rolaids Relief Man of the Year award and placed fifth in Cy Young voting, the last big-league pitcher to have represented Washington, D.C. in an All-Star game was Camilo Pascual in 1959. The last pitcher to have been as popular was Walter Johnson, who retired in 1927 and has a high school named after him. (An interesting aside, Walter Johnson, incidentally, went to high school in Fullerton, Calif., near where Chad Cordero grew up and played in college.)

So, yeah, despite the bright prospect of seeing their new phenom Stephen Strasburg on the mound soon, they really miss Chad Cordero back in Washington, D.C.

He had arrived in the spring of the 2005 season to the nation's capitol, his trademark straight-brimmed hat tugged over his head, along with the rest of his relocated Montreal Expos teammates, to fill a historically large gap in the city's sports chronicles. In 1961, the Washington Senators had left Griffith Stadium and moved to Minneapolis. An expansion team moved into RFK Stadium, but lasted only 10 years before moving to Arlington, Texas, leaving the nation's capital without a major league baseball team for 34 years.

It is hard to understate the immense feeling of that city's baseball fans in 2005 for their new team. Washington publisher James Patterson chartered a bus for a group of writers and diehard baseball supporters to travel to Philadelphia for the opening-day game. Everyone on the bus wore T-shirts that read "Grumpy Old Men of Baseball" with an accompanying cartoon likeness of a man in the bleachers wearing a vintage 1960s Senators hat and a message on the back of the shirt that read, "We Never Left." Washington Post Sports Editor George Solomon was on the bus, along with Walter Johnson's grandson, baseball historian Hank Thomas, and a busload of local sports figures, media and baseball lovers.

The bus trip got almost as much coverage as the game later that day because it represented the spirit that was overtaking fans back in Washington.

"It's like this gigantic error in the universe has finally been corrected," Patterson told news crews who filmed the arrival of the bus at Citizen's Bank Park in Philadelphia.

And that season, except for the spirited play of Alfonso Soriano, there was one player on the roster - the closer, the man with the flat-brimmed hat, Cordero - who night after night performed like a big-leaguer and became the soul of the team and easily its most popular player. He recorded 47 saves that season, and in 2007 he became the second youngest player in history to reach 100 saves.

"That was a pretty special time," Cordero said recently, sitting in the dugout of his new team, the Tacoma Rainiers, before practice one afternoon. "Everywhere you went in the city, people just wanted to talk about how excited and happy they were to have a baseball team again."

Over the next three years, while the team struggled under General Manager Jim Bowden and an indecipherable strategy for rebuilding the team, Cordero was the constant favorite among the fans, who gave him the title, "The Chief," for his ability to put out fires late in games.

Then, on the day of the opening of the new Nationals Park on March 31, 2008, (an event that was broadcast in prime time with then President George Bush in the TV booth with Joe Morgan), while warming up before the game, Cordero felt something give in his arm.

"I first felt the injury that very first game against the Braves," Cordero recalls. "I was playing catch before batting practice and I felt this pop from my shoulder to my elbow and I thought, 'holy cow,' and I knew something was wrong. There was just this sharp pain and a pop."

 As that opening game was coming to its conclusion (and the Nationals leading the game, 4-0, going into the top of the ninth), anyone watching the game was fully expecting the Chief to come in for the save. The only question was whether the new scoreboard had been programmed - as the old one in RFK had been - to light up "Hail to the Chief" and for fire-engine sirens to began blaring upon Cordero's entrance into the game.

When Jon Rauch, not Cordero, came into the game as the closer, fans and media alike were baffled.

National fans would come to grasp over the next few weeks that the Chief was not himself. He was struggling with his velocity, which was dwindling to the low-80s. On April 30, he was pulled out of a game in the ninth inning because of muscle pain.

"That was it," Cordero says. "As soon as I let it go, I felt the muscle - it kind of went. It felt bad, like someone was pulling on it."

Over the next two months Cordero continued to try to throw, and did a short stint with the Nationals A-team, Potomoc, even though he was still experiencing some pain.

Then it was announced on June 30 that he was going to have season-ending surgery on his torn right labrum (which an MRI showed had led to tears in his lat and biceps, as well), a devastating injury that would take 18 months of rehab to recover from - and one from which many pitchers in the past have not returned.

Less than a year later, in March 2009, he was let go by the Nats (a move that enraged fans and led to the demise of Bowden as GM) and signed a contract with the Seattle Mariners. The Chief, who had been a Washington monument for five years, was - just like that - no longer a National.

As Cordero has begun renewing his career with the Mariners' organization, he is feeling great this season, and that is good news for the fans he left behind in D.C., who still follow his progress, and his new ones here.

So for his new community, here are nine cool things about Chad Cordero every fan should know.

Immortal. He is the only Washington Nationals player to ever have been immortalized as a McFarlane Action Figure.

Work ethic. For nearly 14 months he worked four hours a day back in California, often with the support of his family and friends, including his former college coach George Horton, on rehabbing three related career-threatening injuries to his arm.

Class. When Nats GM Bowden announced on a local radio program, shortly after Cordero's surgery, that Cordero was going to be non-tendered for the coming season, he had failed to let Cordero or his agent Larry Reynolds know about it.

"My dad called me," Cordero told reporters, explaining how he heard about it.

"He had received a phone call from a friend who heard about it on the radio. My dad got the call, and then he called and told me. Bowden never once made contact with myself or my agent before he announced it on the radio."

Cordero, despite outrage from Washington sports fans, took the high road and refused to air his frustration and sadness publicly over being disrespected by Bowden.  

Siren Call. Cordero, in his closer's role, entered games in the ninth inning at RFK to the sound of fire engine sirens. Best entry since Orioles' reliever Todd Frohwirth came into games with the song "Wild Thing."

Quick Study. Cordero went from playing in the College World Series with Cal State Fullerton straight to the major leagues in 2003, where he finished his rookie season with Montreal with a 1.62 earned-run-average.

Outreach. Cordero was well known for his community service in Washington, D.C., and he often participated in events for his brother Matthew, who worked for the Make A Wish Foundation.

Unpretentious. Here is Cordero on his current status:

"I am having a lot of fun, getting to play the greatest game in the world for a living. Not many people get to do that. I am playing a game I've played since I was 3. I love to be on the field, throwing balls, hanging out with all my friends.

I just want to continue working, get better and get back to the big leagues soon."

Totally Happening, Shredwise. A true native of surf-happy southern California, Cordero shreds the strike zone like a surfer working a wave on a short board: with a deft touch and technique rather than pure force. Former college coach Horton simply calls him, The Natural.

The Hat.