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Howie Kendrick’s grand slam in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers gave Nats fans one of the most exciting moments in franchise history. Stephen Strasburg, the World Series MVP, will go down as a hero for the Nationals, regardless of whether he stays with the team after opting out of his contract. Max Scherzer, a passionate clubhouse leader,overcame neck spasms to pitch in Game 7.
Martinez had a heart procedure in mid-September, but returned to lead his team to a World Series title in just his second season as manager. During the victory parade, Martinez ran into the crowd for selfies and high-fives at any chance he got. Even fans like Jeff Adams (a.k.a. the Bud Light Guy) and dugout diver Jason Turnerbecame famous through association with a Nationals team that found ways to break down barriers between players and the fans.
“Grit, determination, and a whole ton of fun,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said of the Nats during the World Series championship rally on Nov. 2.
But through the team’s thrilling and improbable World Series run, a pervasive narrative about the Nationals spread. Sportswriters, political pundits, and baseball fans embraced it. The Nationals, they said, helped unite a divided city. A baseball team full of fun characters had given sports fans in town a welcome distraction from the hostile political environment.
It took one afternoon, a hat, and an awkward hug to unravel the myth and burst the supposedly safe, politics-free zone the Nationals were providing.
Exactly a week after a large portion of the fans at Nationals Park vociferously booed Donald Trump at Game 5 of the World Series, the Nationals and the President of the United States ended up in the same place again on Nov. 4. Except this time, Trump found a receptive and supportive audience. And the majority of the Nationals players were willing participants.
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Sports and politics intertwined as they always have, and the White House ceremony proved that the World Series champions do not, as some desperately wanted to believe, provide respite from the political world around us.
“As long as politicians try to exploit sports for their own means, you’re never going to have political escape from sports,” says Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation, a progressive news magazine. “The people politicizing sports first and foremost are the government, corporations, military, and when people say, ‘We want to keep sports and politics apart,’ they’re really saying, ‘We’re trying to keep sports and a certain kind of politics apart.’”
At the White House ceremony, Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki, one of the few Asian Americans in Major League Baseball,donned a red Make America Great Again hat as Trump hugged and grabbed his chest from behind. Ryan Zimmerman presented Trump with a Nationals jersey with his last name and No. 45 on the back before thanking him for “continuing to make America the greatest country to live in in the world.”
Relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, a noted voice for progressive causes along with his wife, Eireann Dolan, told Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Postthat he had decided to skip the White House ceremony over objections to Trump’s policies and his “divisive rhetoric.” Six other players on the active World Series roster—Anthony Rendon, Javy Guerra, Joe Ross, Wander Suero, Michael A. Taylor, and Victor Robles—were also absent, although their reasons were unknown. Additionally, four players on the 40-man roster—Wilmer Difo, Raudy Read, Roenis Elías, and Tres Barrera—did not attend, according to the Post.
“It was amazing. That was the president. Just trying to have some fun,” Suzuki told USA Today after the team’s visit. “Everybody makes everything political. It was about our team winning the World Series.”
But Suzuki’s act clearly came across as partisan and will likely be the enduring image from the ceremony. The White House visit marked the culmination of a weekend-long celebration, which included a parade through the city in front of tens of thousands of fans and a booze-filled visit to the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena.
“America fell in love with Nats baseball. That’s all they wanted to talk about. That and impeachment. I like Nats baseball much more,” Trump said, drawing laughter from the crowd of more than 1,000 people on the White House lawn. (The president is facing an impeachment inquiry after a whistleblower alleged Trump pressured foreign leaders to investigate 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.)
After starting the season 19-31, the Nationals defied the odds and went on a run that included facing five elimination games. They won them all, and did so in a way that reminded fans of the child-like joy of sports.
Players credit Gerardo Parra, who joined the team in May, with introducing the dugout dance parties after home runs. His walk-up song, “Baby Shark,” became a city wide phenomenon. At the victory parade on Nov. 2, 94-year-old Ted Lerner, the former managing principal owner of the team, told the veterans on the team to call him “grandpa shark.”
Parra and pitcher Aníbal Sánchez, both of whom are from Venezuela, wore colorful glasses in the dugout during games. Brian Dozier became a clubhouse dance star and helped make “Calma” by Puerto Rican artist Pedro Capó the team’s unofficial anthem. Juan Soto shuffled his way into the hearts of many fans.
The Nationals did their part in making baseball fun.
But in recent years, many winning athletes have elected to skip their White House ceremony or been uninvited by Trump. Nearly every person of color on the 2018 Boston Red Sox team passed on the celebration, including manager Alex Cora, a Puerto Rico native. Trump rescinded invitations for both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Golden State Warriors after their Super Bowl and NBA Finals victories, respectively.
The Washington Mystics, winners of the WNBA championship last month, have yet to be invited.
“I think with Trump being in the presidency, he brought out some of the worst in our country,” Mystics guard Natasha Cloud told City Paper in May during a conversation about her social activism. “You see that people that support Trump speak out and act on their feelings because there is no consequence anymore. You have the most powerful man in the country acting like a child and an ignorant fool.”
So when Suzuki slipped on the MAGA hat, critics of Trump, especially those in marginalized communities, likely didn’t see a World Series hero innocently wearing a red cap. They saw a symbol of hate. They watched Nationals players openly embrace a president who has a long history of making racist comments, who doesn’t believe in the science behind climate change, and who has bragged about sexually assaulting women.
“People say you should go because it’s about respecting the office of the president,” Doolittle told the Post. “And I think over the course of his time in office he’s done a lot of things that maybe don’t respect the office.”
The past week has served as a reminder that sports are not a true respite from the problems of the world. Not everyone has the privilege to escape. A joyous and memorable World Series title won’t change that.