Nats fans at the Oct. 1 wild-card game against the Brewers
Nats fans at the Oct. 1 wild-card game against the Brewers Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Beth Dahlman did not consider herself a sports fan growing up in the small town of Delano, Minnesota, located about half an hour west of Minneapolis. She would occasionally catch glimpses of Vikings games with her dad and remembers the excitement of the Twins’ World Series runs in 1987 and 1991, but otherwise, sports just weren’t part of her identity.

Now, Dahlman plans her vacation days around Washington Nationals spring training in Florida and is a season ticket plan holder with her husband, Dan Nejfelt. They live in Navy Yard, just a couple blocks away from the ballpark, and Dahlman has met around 10 fellow Nationals fans through social media that she considers “real life dear friends.”

“It’s funny …  we talk about it a lot, like we never would’ve predicted this,” says Dahlman, who is 36 and came to D.C. in 2005. “What an amazing thing to have happened, something so silly and arbitrary ended up impacting our lives pretty significantly.”

That bond has only strengthened this season with the Nationals’ unexpected run to the World Series, led by players who have injected the game with levity. It’s brought together an often-maligned city, and baseball fans of all ages and degrees of fandom have cheered on the team with equal vigor. Many of the team’s supporters are like Dahlman, who started following the Nats years after she moved to D.C. from another city.

Others are like Andy Tretler, a native Washingtonian who has rooted for D.C. pro sports teams his entire life. Tretler, 41, played baseball for St. John’s College High School in Northwest, and says he has only seen his dad, Bucky, cry twice: once at Tretler’s grandfather’s funeral in 1984 and the other time on April 14, 2005—opening day for the newly arrived Washington Nationals. 

D.C. did not have a Major League Baseball team from 1971, when the Washington Senators left town, until the Montreal Expos became the Nats in 2005.

“I’ve thought about this, for nostalgic purposes. He would’ve liked to enjoy sharing baseball with me as a kid, and likewise with his father in some way,” Tretler says of his 66-year-old father. “Even though my granddad died when I was very young, the time he missed at the end of his life, being able to enjoy the game or sport … I think for him, it meant a lot for us to be able to share something that he wasn’t able to share with his dad as he got older.”

Chris Farley also connected with his dad through sports. They watched Washington football team games together and traveled up to Baltimore to cheer on the Orioles, the closest MLB team many fans had in the area. While initially reluctant to shed his fandom for the Orioles, it didn’t take long for Farley, born and raised in Arlington, to trade in Baltimore orange for Nationals red.

“I didn’t immediately jump on the bandwagon,” says Farley, the owner of the Pacers Running stores in D.C. “A few years later, I could barely name anyone from the Orioles. It took me three years, but I was in. Now I’m all Nats, all the time.”

His father, who also went by Chris, died in 2015, and when the Nats swept the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 15 to reach the World Series, Farley, 43, thought about his dad and his own children, 3-year-old James and 1-year-old Paul.

He threw a few fist pumps in the air after the final out and then started to tear up.

“I’m a huge sports fan,” Farley explains. “I invest in a few things. I invest in my business. I invest in my family. I invest in my friends. I invest in my sports teams. I’m completely invested in these things, for better or for worse … I just couldn’t believe they swept it … This team continues to find a way … It was a really special moment.”

Henry Haley Goldman of Silver Spring had yet to turn 4 when the Nats moved to D.C., but he felt compelled to learn everything he could about the team. 

Even though his parents didn’t watch baseball, Haley Goldman says, he would take the sports section of the Washington Post and ask his teachers to read it to him in elementary school. He devoured every MLB box score and Nats-related articles.

He calls Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Cardinals in 2012 one of the best days of his life. The following game, the Nats blew a 6-0 lead and lost in the decisive Game 5, 9-7.

“I cried so much that night,” he remembers.

Now an 18-year-old freshman at Kenyon College in Ohio, Haley Goldman proudly cheers on the Nats in his dorm, even if his friends are mostly New York Mets fans. He even got his dad to watch the clinching Game 4 of the National League Championship Series this season. He’s part of the generation that’s grown up seeing D.C. sports transform from laughingstock to potential champions.

“I feel really lucky with the Capitals and Mystics,” Haley Goldman says of the 2018 Stanley Cup and 2019 WNBA champions, respectively. “I feel like I’ve experienced enough of D.C. sports tragedy to understand the pain, but it’s definitely turned … Everything’s changed now.”

Patty MacEwan has been to about 500 Nationals games, both at Nationals Park and in other cities. This year’s team, which started the season 19-31, resonates with her on a personal level.

On Feb. 28, MacEwan had a stroke. The 55-year-old from Alexandria was in the hospital for nearly a month. One of her goals was to make it to the team’s opening day on March 28. She got out on March 27, and so far she’s been to every home playoff game this season.

MacEwan says she no longer needs a wheelchair and plans to be at all the Nationals’ home World Series games, cheering along with longtime fans and those who have only recently jumped on the bandwagon. 

“I think it’s great,” she says. “The more fans, the better. I don’t care if you became a fan the day before they win, or after they win, or when they got here, or have been an Expos fan. It doesn’t matter to me. A fan is a fan.”

MacEwan is confidently predicting that the Nats will win in five games. To her, the way the players rebounded from a tough start and the way they’ve clinched games after falling behind in the playoffs make them the “team of destiny.”

“They’re never out of it,” she says. “I think it’s just that, you have to keep the faith. Attitude is an important part of any recovery, and I tend to have a very positive attitude about that … They just keep the faith and never give up.”

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