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For the second year in a row, D.C. sports fans can say what it feels like to be world champions.
On Oct. 10, the Washington Mystics beat the Connecticut Sun in a decisive fifth game to claim the franchise’s first WNBA title. Twenty days later, the Washington Nationals rallied to beat the Houston Astros in seven games, also a franchise first. Just last year, the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup.
This year also marked the 20th anniversary of Dan Snyder’s ownership of the local NFL franchise. As the team failed to reach the playoffs for the fourth straight season and 10th time out of the last 12 years, several longtime fans of the team told the Washington Post that they’ve moved on to a support a team 30 miles north, the Lamar Jackson-led Baltimore Ravens, instead.
So if 2019 proved anything, it’s that there is a generation of D.C. sports fans growing up in an age of winners. They don’t have to accept anything less.
Jeers and Cheers
The year started inauspiciously with former Nats superstar Bryce Harper signing with division rival Philadelphia Phillies. Harper left a complicated legacy in D.C. and created a void in local star power athletes. When he returned to town in April, the announced crowd of 35,920 at Nationals Park showered him with boos. Fans in right field wore T-shirts that spelled out the word “T-R-A-I-T-O-R.”
It didn’t help that the Nats stumbled out of the gate with a 19-31 record, and in late May, they had a .01 percent chance of winning the World Series, according to MLB Stats. The 20th anniversary of Snyder’s team came the same month and served as a reminder of how far the once proud team has fallen.
But local sports fans still had plenty to cheer about. In April, the Wizards finally fired president Ernie Grunfeld after 16 seasons in charge. The move was long overdue and gave Wizards fans the hope that change could finally come.
Team owner Ted Leonsis named Tommy Sheppard, an assistant under Grunfeld, as the new general manager, and announced the creation of Monumental Basketball, the newly formed operation that oversees the Wizards, Mystics, Capital City Go-Go, and Wizards District Gaming, the organization’s esports operation. Sheppard was able to convince Bradley Beal to sign a two-year extension worth nearly $72 million.
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The Washington football team also let go of coach Jay Gruden in early October, a move that didn’t garner as much optimism, due to the fact that Snyder still owns the team. “It’s the right move,” City Paper contributor Matt Terl wrote. “It gives the team a chance to hit eject on a lost season and start evaluating its coaching staff and roster to determine who can contribute next year. It also won’t make a bit of difference.”
On the soccer pitch, Washington Spirit stars Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh contributed to one of the biggest highlights in sports this year. The close friends and roommates in Rockville made it on the World Cup roster and helped the U.S. win the championship in France. Lavelle scored arguably the most memorable goal of the tournament in the championship game and she returned to D.C. as a World Cup hero.
Bolstered by the World Cup, fans filled stadiums to watch the Spirit, including two games at the 20,000 capacity Audi Field in Southwest D.C. Next season, due to the increased demand, the team will play in three venues: the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Audi Field, and Segra Field in Leesburg.
Fight to the Finish
It’s hard not to hear Natasha Cloud. The Philadelphia area native is outspoken and confident, and this year, she became a vocal leader for the Mystics. When she speaks, people listen.
Cloud received national attention in June for instituting a “media blackout” to raise awareness of the shootings in Southeast D.C. On the court, she made bold, candid pronouncements. With Emma Meesseman back in the mix, the Mystics started the season with the mantra, “run it back,” after being swept in the WNBA Finals last season. They embraced the pressure of being the favorites during the playoffs.
Before Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, WUSA9 reporter Darren M. Haynes asked Cloud if the team would win on their home floor. “That’s a guarantee,” she said. “Facts. Period.”
The team did win, rallying from a halftime deficit behind the duo of league MVP Elena Delle Donne and Meesseman, who earned MVP honors for the WNBA Finals. Coach Mike Thibault, the winningest coach in WNBA history, won his first WNBA title.
Unlike the Mystics, the Nats were never the favorite to win the World Series. The bullpen struggled, second year manager Dave Martinez made questionable in-game decisions, and the team was written off multiple times throughout the season. But with a mixture of veterans and breakout stars, the team won all five elimination games they faced, including Game 7 of the World Series.
“Everybody does love a winner,” Thibault told City Paper in October. “And you know, especially when the winner is likable … A lot has been made about the Nationals, every elimination game they’ve been gritty, they’ve been able to do things. I think fans identify with that … It would be a great feeling if everybody just was great all the time, but when you have a storyline that goes with it, it’s a lot more fun.”
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
Anthony Rendon left to sign with the Los Angeles Angels, opposing NFL fans still fill up FedExField, and the Wizards remain near the bottom of the NBA standings, but the Nats and the Mystics reminded fans that D.C. sports can—and should—be fun.
This year featured the unfiltered joy of Brian Dozier singing “Calma” by Puerto Rican artist Pedro Capó while shirtless. Gerardo Parra led dugout dances and got an entire ballpark to clap along to “Baby Shark.” During the World Series, Juan Soto perfected the art of the “bat drop” and is on his way to becoming the sport’s next big name.
At the World Series parade, a 51-year-old from Waldorf, Maryland, named Anibal Apunte dressed up as Elmo and found himself on top of a parade bus. He posed for photos with players and fans and returned home with a lifetime of memories.
The same can be said for Jason Turner, a 19-year-old from Fairfax who went viral after City Paper captured him slip-and-sliding on top of the Nats Park dugout. He’s part of the generation of fans growing up with winners.
“It’s unbelievable,” Turner said shortly after the Nats clinched the World Series. “First the Capitals and the Mystics. Now the Nats. All we need is Dan Snyder to leave D.C. and the [Washington football team will] get on top.”