For years, being a fan of the Washington Nationals has been defined by indignity. Fans have been kicked while they’re down, had their hopes dashed year after year, and, in some circumstances, had their very existence denied.
Those indignities started even before Major League Baseball moved the Montreal Expos to Washington. Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles, fought the move using every tool he had. He viewed a team in D.C. as an existential threat to his team, and, in the process, infamously told Baltimore radio station WBAL-AM that “there are no real baseball fans in D.C.; that’s a fiction.”
Perhaps Angelos was able to watch the Nationals’ World Series victory parade last Saturday on MASN, the television network he created that controls broadcast rights to Nats games and that has been locked in years of bitter litigation over the Nats’ claims that he refuses to pay them a market rate for those broadcasts.
If he did watch, maybe he was surprised at the tens of thousands of red-clad fans hoping to glimpse their favorite players with the World Series trophy. If he missed that, maybe he could talk to the supposedly non-existent fans who scrambled to pay $1,000 or more on the secondary market for a seat to one of the three packed-to-the-rafters World Series games in Washington or to any of the 16,000 screaming crazies (and one shirtless diving dude) cheering in a cold rain at the Game 7 watch party at Nationals Park while the actual game took place more than 1,000 miles away.
The come-from-behind World Series win capped a come-from-way-behind season that saw the Nats bottom out in May with the fourth worst record in all of baseball. The success the team finally found this year took all those tired narratives and jokes about the team and its fans, crunched them into a ball, and lobbed it across the plate, only for it to be smashed into orbit like a Juan Soto homer.
The mockery the Nats have endured includes national news organizations’ coverage of the team and its fans. These stories are always written as if Nats fans wear nothing but Brooks Brothers suits and retreat to their real homes in faraway states every four years, discarding their Nats cap for their old trusty Sox or Yankees hats.
It ignores the hundreds of thousands of D.C.-area folks who’ve been here for generations or those who moved here years ago and decided to make this place their home. It ignores the folks who rooted for the Senators or Homestead Grays and passed on that love of baseball to their family, a love that lingered or even lapsed for a time when their beloved teams moved to Minnesota or Texas. Just like any other city, some of their collars are white and others blue and that all gets erased when the only colors you see are partisan-tinged reds and blues.
Nats fans have even had to swallow spoonfuls of vinegar from their own team. Stan Kasten, the team’s carnival-barking former president, hawked tickets to opening day—the most sacrosanct of baseball holy days—to out-of-town Philadelphia fans in 2010. Busloads came down I-95, filling the park and giving Kasten the sweet ticket revenue boost he craved. Meanwhile, Nats fans got to hear their team booed during player introductions and jeered throughout the 11-1 loss, another indignity on the way to a 93-loss season.
D.C. baseball fans are told that their baseball history is actually Montreal’s. Hipster baseball fans who’ve never set foot in Quebec and can’t name any Expos other than Tim Raines and Pedro Martinez push for a version of history that prefers a corporate lineage to the over 100 years of baseball history in Washington: of Walter Johnson and Goose Goslin; of Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard.
If you’re a Nats fan, you’re used to all the losing. You’re used to the Walgreens and Gnats jokes. When Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman stepped up to the plate in misspelled “Natinals” jerseys in 2009, well, what did you expect? When the team’s original general manager Jim Bowden resigned in the midst of a bonus-skimming scandal that came to light because a top prospect nicknamed “Smiley” was actually four years older than everyone thought, well, that was just so perfectly Nats.
When regular season success started to come, fans became increasingly numb to the postseason losses and certainly numb to the “The Washington Nationals have never won a playoff series” jokes. Year after year, even amid the team’s regular season success, the team’s postseason failures defined it.
Close your eyes and you can see Drew Storen facing off against Pete Kozma in 2012. You can see Matt Wieters falling apart against the Cubs in 2017, having the worst defensive half-inning in baseball history. You can picture Gio Gonzalez, looking too small for the moment, walking batters with a lead in postseason starts. The memories you have of the postseason, Jayson Werth’s homer in the 2012 National League Division Series aside, have been of the Nats failing, of folding in the biggest moments.
But stop and think about this. That run of success extends eight seasons. The run of futility before that extends back seven more. That’s 15 years of baseball in D.C. That’s an entire generation. Anyone under 30 grew up with baseball in D.C. Any of those once-transient 40-year olds who settled in D.C. have had the Nats for most of their adult lives—and they’ve probably got a kid or two who’s known nothing but a winning baseball team.
The Nats aren’t a ragtag bunch of no-names run out of a modular trailer in the parking lots of RFK Stadium as they were in November 2004. They’re a franchise integrated into the community with their own superstars and their own generation-long history.
Nothing drove this home for me more than thinking about hats. The day of Game 3 of the World Series, the first Fall Classic game in D.C. since 1933, I took a picture of the red curly W cap I bought at RFK in 2005 and posted it to Twitter. Faded a bit, with some blackish grime on the brim and humidity-assisted sweat stains, it’s been well loved. Over the next day or so, fan after fan snapped pictures of their caps and shared them. Some looked pristine, but most were sun-beaten and worn. Seams were ripped and colors faded, especially one fan’s 2005 hat worn during a deployment in Iraq. The hats were ugly and rumpled, but loved.
And that’s when it hit me. I thought back to all those old battered Red Sox or Yankees caps I’ve seen over the years. They, like these Nats caps, had faded colors and a structureless shape molded perfectly to the wearer’s head over the years. It reminded me that the Washington Nationals have their own history, one long enough to overcome all those jokes.
That’s what this championship season has done. It hasn’t built a community of baseball fans, but affirmed their existence. It’s strengthened bonds between fans and the city that already existed.
All postseason, many tried drawing parallels with the Washington Capitals and their run to the Stanley Cup. While some of those comparisons are facile, what does hold is that feeling of elation at the end and that all those painful losses before are now absolved. For the Nats, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals or the Los Angeles Dodgers in seasons past will be looked on as part of one long continuum leading to the championship. It’s not that those losses didn’t happen; it’s that they don’t matter now. They have their trophy, and us Nats fans can claim our history.