Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

“Bandwagon” is usually an epithet to die-hard sports fans.

Those years in the wilderness, after all, are the ones that make the winning seasons feel so sweet. Yes, when the local team wins it all, logos pop up all over a city, tickets become hard to come by—and the longtime loyalists start to grumble. Only the real fans bother to come out to the 77th home game of a 103-loss campaign. So only the real fans should really get to bask in the glow of victory, right?

The beauty of rooting for a team that’s only in its eighth year of existence, though, is that there are no longtime loyalists. Sure, the Washington Nationals have been pretty bad for most of the time they’ve been around—but they’ve only been around since 2005. For 34 years before that, D.C. had no baseball at all. So no one in town had to watch, mournfully, as their team was mathematically eliminated from postseason contention weeks before the last game, or gnash their teeth in frustration as the losses piled up, knowing things would be no better next time around, either. (No one, that is, except Redskins fans in the Dan Snyder era.)

Before that long winter, though, the District did have a team: the Washington Senators. There were two iterations of it, in fact, both of which abandoned us for other towns where they thought they’d have a better future: Minneapolis, where the Senators became the Twins in 1960, and the Dallas exurbs, where the reborn Senators became the Texas Rangers in 1971. And both teams were uniformly awful—awful enough to spawn a cliche about D.C.: First in war, first in peace, last in the American League. Before this fall, the last time the local baseball team had a winning record was 1969. The last time a D.C. club made the playoffs? 1933.

Which means everyone in town, from the hardest-core baseball loons to the folks who aren’t even sure which team is which when they catch a glimpse of a game in a bar, came into 2012 a little unprepared for what the Nationals gave us. A team that pundits expected to contend for a wild card spot has, instead, put up the best record in the major leagues for most of the season. Rookie Bryce Harper went from hitting pop-ups in a pickup softball game on the National Mall to pounding game-winning home runs. Offseason acquisition Gio Gonzalez is a favorite to win the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the National League. When the club benched phenom Stephen Strasburg to avoid reinjuring his surgically rebuilt right elbow, it made national news; even Rudy Giuliani offered up his medical opinion on the matter.

So this week, Washington City Paper presents a how-to manual on something no one in D.C. has had much practice at: rooting for a winning baseball team. Some fans of the Nats’ bitter rivals from up I-95, the Phillies, weigh in, and a Yankee fan tells us how to celebrate like the smuggest—er, winningest—club in baseball. A native Orioles fan relates why he abandoned the Birds for the Nationals, and a fan of the team that left Montreal to become our Nationals, the Expos, looks back on happier days. With any luck, we’ll all have years to get used to the Nats’ winning ways. But don’t worry about next season yet; October beckons. Join us on the bandwagon.

How the Damn Yankees Do It

There are few species of sports fan more despicable than the Yankee faithful. They’re smug, vulgar, and according to reliable Quinnipiac polling, mostly Republican. All the more reason for Nationals fans to copy them.

Allow me to explain. I’m a New York Yankees fan. I have been since 1996, when Derek Jeter was a rookie and the team won the World Series without help from steroid-enhanced mastodons. The Nats are basically in the same place the Yanks were then: newfound division leaders led by a dominant bullpen and a handful of winsome young stars. But unlike ’96-era Yankees fans, their D.C. counterparts have no remembrance of past success—there hasn’t been any past success—and as a result, they’re utterly lacking in swagger. The semiofficial team slogan, “Natitude,” sounds more like a rejected Natty Light tagline than a genuine reflection of fan ferocity.

Here are a few pinstripe-tested ways Nats diehards can give off that sweet aroma of arrogant, unapologetic Yankee success.

  1. Boo your own players. Not doing so demonstrates complacency and low expectations. Second baseman Danny Espinosa leads the league in strikeouts. Remind him.
  2. Deny the existence of rival teams. The Yankees’ psychological advantage over the perennially neurotic Boston Red Sox has more to do with feigned nonchalance than on-field superiority. Likewise, the correct fan response when the Nats face the Phillies or the Orioles is a simple shrug and a yawn.
  3. Think like a Republican. It’s your birthright to win baseball games. Anything that helps you get there—however corrupt, craven, or unfair—is ultimately worth it. So when Mike Rizzo buys his first championship or Bryce Harper is caught with a needle in his butt cheek, don’t lose sleep over it.
  4. Drink more, better. A decade ago, Yankee Stadium’s bleachers got so debauched the team had to ban alcohol sales there. Nationals Park will never be an intimidating playoff destination without a little debris and foul language flying in from the cheap seats. So: more irresponsible in-seat drunkenness, less schmoozing at that ridiculous bar behind center field.
  5. Don’t do the Wave.

Winning Once Won’t Be Enough

Excuse me if the following statement sounds greedy or petty or obnoxious, because it’s really about a deeper, almost spiritual level of dismay: It’s horrible knowing that Philadelphia’s current streak of National League East titles will end at five. My feelings have almost nothing to do with the Nats, so you Washington fans can just step off for a minute. The pain is really about the Atlanta Braves.

Like so many things that matter socially or psychologically in sports, the hurt goes back many years, to the Braves team that won 11 straight division titles from 1995 to 2005. If you stuck with the Phils during that miserable stretch, you developed a seething hatred for the Atlanta franchise. You loathed it more than either New York team, even though “Fuck the Mets” was still a valid rallying cry and that era’s Yankees were probably the most evil baseball empire ever. It didn’t matter that the Braves generally crapped out in the playoffs. They got there; Philly didn’t.

So when the Phils got good and the Braves fell off, hardcore Philly fans knew what they wanted: Not just one year of division-title revenge. Not just one World Series banner to match the one overall championship Atlanta won during its run. No, the only proper result would be years of dominance. Maybe not 11 division titles—that would be an irrational goal in a league that had changed significantly since the Braves’ heyday. But winning many, many more would be the only fitting result.

After the Phils racked up their fourth in a row, the grudge was easier to compartmentalize. Maybe it only surfaced when the Braves were actually in town. But it never went away. When Philly beat Atlanta on Sept. 29 last year, knocking the Braves out of the postseason, it was sweet. Maybe even sweeter than ending the season with a fifth pennant. (The part where beating the Braves meant the Cardinals got into the playoffs? That did not end well for the Phils.)

What does this all mean for Nats fans? Although this year surely has been a blast, you shouldn’t be satisfied with one division title (assuming Washington can hold off the stinkin’ Braves down the stretch). And if you happen to beat an N.L. East rival in the playoffs, savor it—but don’t dwell on it. This is a division where a single good year does not equal total retribution. You’ll know what I’m talking about in 2013, when the Phils have reloaded. This year will seem so innocent and mystical in hindsight.

The five-year, grind-their-nose-in-it run: That’s what you want. And then you want more. Another way to look at it: The Mets, not the Phils, ended Atlanta’s epic run in 2006. Do you think Mets fans are still rejoicing in that one measly little division title? Hell no.

An Orioles Fan Comes Home to Roost

I am a turncoat.

I grew up five minutes outside D.C., but D.C. didn’t have a baseball team—as my father, a lifelong Washingtonian, would bitterly remark. So we were an Orioles household, and as an Orioles fan, I was second to no other native Marylander. I pored over my dad’s scorecards from 1983. I could mimic every batting stance, even Cal Ripken Jr.’s frog-sitting-on-a-trampoline schtick from 1992. I memorized my Chuck Thompson tribute cassette tape. I bought peanuts outside Memorial Stadium and saw Randy Johnson throw over John Kruk’s head at Camden Yards. In sixth grade, I fantasized about how if I ever ran into Jeffrey Maier, I would beat the shit out of him. In 2003, well past my rooting years, I smiled when I learned my freshman dorm room would be on floor 8.

The summer of 2005, the Nats’ first season, I was home and bored and a little depressed. I went to RFK and saw Chad Cordero rack up all those saves. Later on, I grew to like Ryan Zimmerman. Stephen Strasburg’s debut was exciting. Davey Johnson’s hiring seemed like a weird and wonderful sign—redemption for that day he was named Manager of the Year and forced to quit the Orioles, the day baseball was permanently tainted for me. Yet only this season have I felt about the Nats remotely as I felt about the ’95–’97 O’s, and while I got my crush before it was clear we were quite this good—the catalyst was Wilson Ramos’ bottom-11 walk-off single in early May—my feeling is not unrelated to how awesome we are this year. I’m aware of what this arguably makes me.

Like me, my friend Micah grew up in the Maryland suburbs. Unlike me, he has stuck with the Orioles. I call him, wanting to know what made him a stronger, more loyal fan. As part of an aside about baseball’s being “an intergenerational sport,” he tells me his dad is from Baltimore, which I hadn’t known. I realize we’re both just looking out for ourselves.

This year, my father started occasionally referring to the Nationals as the “Senators.” He claims this is an accidental slip, noting that the Senators used to be called “the Nats” sometimes. I am convinced it is forced. But own my reasons for backing the Nats are yet more forced: I root for them because they’re fun and talented, and because they’re from Washington and I’m pushing a decade in New York City and don’t want to become like everyone else there, and because I can meet any accusation with the rebuttal that my father grew up on Chesapeake Street NW. All fandom is aspirational. It is who we choose to be. Who doesn’t want to be better than he is?

Truth be told, though, even today, I would still like to beat the shit out of Jeffrey Maier.

Au Revoir, Les Expos

“We don’t have anything—even an A-level club,” Bruno Demmerle says. The 36-year-old bank IT manager was speaking from his home in Montreal on a recent evening about Quebecois baseball in general, and more specifically about the Expos—the franchise he once ardently followed before they were shipped south to the District, where they are now the playoff-bound Washington Nationals.

“It’s difficult to see baseball even if I wanted to,” he says.

With rare exceptions—the death of former Expos star catcher Gary Carter, the induction of outfielder Andre Dawson into the Hall of Fame—it’s easy to forget about the Expos, Major League Baseball’s first franchise outside the United States. Born as an expansion team in 1969, the season that brought forth divisional play and league playoffs, the Expos seemed to live a less than incredible life. Indeed, when people think about the Expos it’s often through much-maligned imagery: the strange official emblem; the powder-blue road uniforms; the empty stadium; the franchise with the wherewithal for finding young talent with unbelievable skills, only to trade that talent away before losing them to well-heeled teams wielding free agent money; Rusty Staub.

It all seemed unreal. Yet the Expos were once very real to Demmerle and the people of Montreal. In 2003 and 2004, the team’s last seasons as the Expos, Demmerle had season tickets; the club only sold about 2,500 of them each year. He took his now-wife Thi on their first date to Olympic Stadium. His last Expos game was quite literally the last Expos game played in Montreal, a Sept. 29, 2004 loss to the Florida Marlins.

The Expos and their plight have a special, shameful place in the exhibition one could erect to the greed of Major League Baseball ownership. While every fan suffered during the 1994 players’ strike—forced by the uncompromising tactics and demands of ownership—no one ached more as a fan base or a franchise than the Expos. At the time of the stoppage, the Expos, fielding one of the best starting lineups in baseball and anchored by future Hall of Fame Pitcher Pedro Martinez, were 74–40. The team’s home attendance for the season was reaching 2 million fans. They seemed destined to reach, if not win, a World Series, except that it all happened in the year the World Series simply didn’t. When play resumed in 1995, the Expos began shipping off talent to other teams. Fini.

“We didn’t even get the kudos,” Demmerle says. “After losing those players, we didn’t get banners saying we were the best team. We didn’t even get the official title, so that was disappointing.”

More disappointment followed. The team’s new owner, a rapacious New York art dealer named Jeffrey Loria, ditched the club’s English TV and radio rights but couldn’t get a lucrative enough new deal in a French-speaking province, couldn’t get financial support from the government, and eventually decided he couldn’t stick with the team. He bailed, bought the Florida Marlins, and left the Expos to be a ward of Major League Baseball.

If you’re a fan of a star-crossed franchise, you hold your good moments close. For Demmerle, one of those remains June 3, 1995. Pedro Martinez threw nine innings of perfect baseball against the San Diego Padres. Alas, he did so without the Expos scoring any runs of their own. Pitching into the 10th, Martinez proved mortal, giving up a single and ceding that particular place in baseball history. “When the story’s at the best, it’s when you get destroyed,” Demmerle says.

With Les Expos’ departure, Demmerle became a baseball nomad. He rooted for Billy Beane’s Oakland Athletics, since their own pangs paralleled those of his now nonexistent team. He rooted, though never truly became a fan of, the Boston Red Sox, the franchise Martinez helped lead to World Series victory. As time went on, Denmerle simply found other things to do with his time, none of which involved the expected bitterness of watching the Nationals succeed this season.

“It’s been eight years,” he says. “There’s no more players that were on that 2004 team. If they had made the playoffs the year after that, it would have been more upsetting.

“But I’ve pretty much moved on to other things,” he continues. “Good for them.”

Census Bureau, Meet the Elias Sports Bureau

With a field measuring more than 100,000 square feet and only 10 to 13 players on the diamond at one time, baseball is the sprawliest of all major sports, befitting of America’s pastime. Yet paradoxically, almost one-third of all World Series games have been won by a team from our densest urban area, New York City. That feat looks slightly less impressive when you consider that the city’s home teams account for 266 (12 percent) of all 2,244 seasons ever played—not to mention their payrolls. (Why 2,244 seasons? One season for each year each team has been in the majors.)

Relative to the number of baseball seasons played in each city, New York, Miami, and Oakland are the most decorated. In comparison, with 76 seasons under its belt and only one championship to show for it, the District of Columbia is, historically, a baseball underachiever.

Regardless of how the Nats perform over the coming months, there is at least one fact in which District residents can take immediate pride. According to Baseball-Almanac.com, the D.C. area has midwived more pro ball players per capita over the course of MLB history than any other U.S. state or foreign nation, easily outpacing its closest competitors in Pennsylvania, the Virgin Islands, Massachusetts, Missouri, and Curacao. Pop Snyder, Lu Blue, Red Webb, and Frank Funk? All native Washingtonians!

Do You Feel Lucky, Nats Fans?

As an American, I’m thrilled that our national capital has a winning team. This is our national pastime, people! Patriots have an obligation to root for the Nationals—unless and until they face the San Francisco Giants in the playoffs. (Let’s just get that straight.)

As a San Franciscan, I know what it’s like to live in a great city and love a team that loses way too much. But we waited 52 years for a World Series win, so don’t get ahead of yourselves.

I’m not condemning you to 52 years in the desert, though. (The notion that I think I could condemn you speaks to my baseball superstition. When it comes to baseball, I believe anything I say matters.) What I’m really saying is: Don’t be like me! Don’t be superstitious! Enjoy the game. Get up and walk around the stadium when you feel like it. Forget your lucky shirt. Get your daughter a hot dog when she wants one. Just enjoy this great season.

Oh, and if we meet in the playoffs, I’ll be the one in the lucky shirt who only gets my daughter a hot dog when the Giants are batting; I won’t walk around when our pitchers are pitching, because they need me. I’ll be refusing to change my seats under any circumstances and making deals with God (they’re private deals) so that Buster Posey gets the winning hit and stays healthy.

In other words, do as I say, not as I do.

Drink, Drink, Drink for the Home Team

On a recent Thursday evening at around 7:30 p.m., about 40 people linger outside Justin’s Café, on First Street SE between L and M, just a few blocks from Nationals Park.

Twenty minutes earlier, the place had been packed. The bar empties just before the first pitch each game day. During the pregame revelry, though, people spill onto the sidewalk outside the Velocity, the high-end condo building in which the bar is located. It’s nearly impossible to move, let alone get a beer. But people still come.

“I had a vision for what this place would be,” says Justin Ross, 28, the bar’s owner. “And it turns out that vision was right.”

Perhaps no single person has benefitted from the Nationals and their success more than Ross. He opened his bar in 2010 and made three times what he expected in his first year, even though the last-place Nationals were horrible.

Why? There aren’t any other places to drink or get a bite before game time in the neighborhood. The financial crisis derailed much of the development planned for the area around the ballpark: The only other close-by watering hole is the Fairgrounds, a charmless open-air beer garden right in front of the stadium that opened this season.

Early in this baseball year, when many suspected the Nationals would be successful, Justin’s was merely crowded before games. Now that this suspicion has been confirmed, the bar is packed. Ross has 27 employees, half of them full-time. He declines to say just how good a year he’s having financially, but notes that the bar is performing well beyond expectations.

“I want to make this the bar for the Nationals,” Ross says, who’s been running advertisements on 106.7 The Fan branding his bar with the club. “I want ESPN to be in here.”

His monopoly won’t last forever. A series of new bars is set to open in Yard’s Park in the coming months. Construction on new apartments and condos has finally begun. Once the area is built out, 16,000 people are expected to live here. Bars and restaurants will follow. Justin’s Café will soon have robust competition.

But Ross is confident that there will be more than enough business to go around, and that people in the neighborhood will be loyal to the place they visited during this year of unexpected Natitude.

“I want this to be a bar where I know your name, where our waitress knows you name,” Ross says. “I know people will always come back.”

A few hours later, the crowd at Justin’s erupts: The Nationals had clinched a postseason berth. October baseball will be good for Washington. It will also keep thousands of fans coming to Nationals Park, making October a very, very good month for Justin Ross.

Phillies Fan to D.C.: You Win!

And now, this, from the pen of what many Washington Nationals fans might visualize as a mouth-breathing troglodyte unable to manipulate such primitive tools—i.e., a Phillies fan: The Nationals have been a much, much better team than the Philadelphia Phillies this year.

That statement is based on objective facts, the lifeblood of baseball, in which practically everything can be quantified. Through Sept. 24, the Nationals have won more games, scored more runs, made fewer errors, and allowed nearly six-tenths of a run less per game. These are the cold truths, the incontrovertible statistics.

But they don’t represent the totality of why it is slightly easier for this Phillies fan to choke down a plentiful serving of humble pie.

Six years ago, the Phillies traded away all-star outfielder Bobby Abreu. While it wasn’t quite the club’s worst trade ever—after all, Philadelphia once gave away both Ryne Sandberg and Ferguson Jenkins for nothing—it was viciously skewered. While that 2006 club boasted potential in Ryan Howard (that year’s MVP), Chase Utley, and Cole Hamels, the trade was considered, at best, a tacit admission that the team wasn’t ready to compete.

A little more than two years later, the Phillies were champions.

This Nationals vintage reminds me of those years. Often, one could watch the 2007 and 2008 Phillies and wonder how a team could manage such success with nagging injuries at key positions, a novice catcher, a castoff in right, and a two-time Rule 5 draftee in center.

The 2012 Nationals, too, have successfully fought off serious injuries. Just as the Phillies were fortunate to turn Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth—players other teams didn’t want—into key cogs, the Nationals found superb value in Adam LaRoche and Mike Morse. The team easily molded some of the most talented young players in the world to a foundation of already-promising players like Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, and Jordan Zimmerman. The front office is hardly immune from criticism, but still made the trade of the year for Gio Gonzalez. The Nats bench even has that scrappy quality.

Enjoy it, Nats fans. If history is any guide, the next month or so could be a period you’ll remember for a long time. Barring the miraculous, I sincerely hope your October is just as memorable as my last few have been.

Winning Isn’t Free

The Nats had better win the World Series; Lord knows the District has paid enough for it.

The team, owned by billionaire Ted Lerner, is the city’s biggest recipient of corporate welfare. Taxpayers are footing the vast majority of the $1 billion the stadium is projected to cost when the bonds and the interest are finally paid off.

To pay for the stadium, D.C. assesses a “ballpark fee” on any business that grosses more than $5 million a year, even though most of those businesses have nothing to do with baseball. The city also collects extra utility taxes from nonresidential users, almost all of whom have nothing to do with baseball, either.

From 2005 through fiscal year 2011, the District collected $250 million from the ballpark fee and utility taxes. Meanwhile, the team paid less than $16 million in rent.

But that sweet deal doesn’t mean the Nats are willing to be a good civic team player. News broke last month that the club won’t pay the extra $29,000 an hour it costs Metro to run trains after hours to accommodate late games. (Other local teams pay for Metro overtime.) City officials are still trying to hammer out a solution before the playoffs, when games typically run later.

Playoff games will likely also mean fewer cops patrolling your neighborhoods: An internal memo to the entire Metropolitan Police Department force sent on Sept. 17 shows many officers will be keeping the peace around the stadium during playoff games instead of doing their regular patrols.

During the first round, each of the city’s seven police districts will send a “platoon” of 33 cops (with riot gear and gas masks) to the ballpark. If the Nats advance to the National League championship series and/or the World Series, two platoons from each district, about 400 cops from around the city, would man the ballpark from 2:30 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. on game days. District officials are still reviewing the costs of the additional security, but it’s a solid bet that the city’s taxpayers will have to pick up the tab.

There is one more-or-less free municipal celebration already going on: Mayor Vince Gray, who still regularly plays first base for his softball team the D.C. Dragons, has ordered the Wilson Building lit red until the playoff run ends. No word yet on how the city plans to mark an actual World Series ring.

For the Birds: How the Nationals Ruined Their Mascot

There wasn’t much worth watching on the field during the Nationals’ dismal 2008 season. But there was a star in their new ballpark’s stands: Screech, the team’s pudgy eagle mascot.

In a typical prank, he convinced a fan of the opposing team to try to toss a quarter from his forehead into a cup in his lap, all without using his hands. As the man tried to line his head up with the cup, Screech opened up a beer on his head. “Ohhh, Screech!” moaned the announcer, who seemed genuinely disappointed.

The Nationals’ website goes into meticulous detail about Screech’s mythology, which starts with a rotating cast of a zoologists caring for a mysterious egg. When Screech hatches, he earns his name because he won’t stop screeching about the Nationals. (None of this explains, of course, why Screech was so rude to his fellow fans.)

The golden age of Screech terror ended in 2009, when the Nationals redesigned Screech’s costume to reflect that he was now a teenager. His beer belly disappeared, and his neck feathers, once evocative of the Gorton’s fisherman on a bender, shrunk. Gone too was his violent fandom, replaced with bland boosterism. “Screech is growing up, and he’s here to show that growing up isn’t so bad,” a Nationals employee told the Washington Times.

But for Screech, growing up has been bad. The original Screech was an unrestrained id stalking through Nationals Park—hugging kids, pouring beer on their parents, and entertaining anyone who was a little dubious about this young team. Now that the Nationals have matured themselves, they should feel comfortable with a less serious mascot.

It’s playoff time. Bring back old Screech, jerk and all!

A Baseball Team Travels on its Stomach?

Things are really looking up for the Nats right now. And no, it has nothing do with runs or wins or rankings. I’m talking about the food.

Last year, Nationals Park got a major upgrade in the form of Box Frites, Blue Smoke, El Verano Taqueria, and Shake Shack, all from New York restaurateur Danny Meyer. Directly outside the stadium, Bullpen and Das Bullpen have this year been replaced by the Fairgrounds, which brought food trucks to the fans. And a year from now, the once-empty Capitol Riverfront neighborhood around the stadium could be a hip dining destination thanks to a craft brewery, Bluejacket, from Neighborhood Restaurant Group; Osteria Morini from award-winning chef Michael White; Park Tavern from Capitol Hill restaurateur Xavier Cervera; and others.

Just as the eating options are improving, so is the team. Coincidence? Maybe not. Happy stomachs mean happy, cheering fans, which mean a more motivated team and more wins. So please don’t buy me peanuts and Cracker Jacks. How enthusiastic can I be about peanuts? I’d prefer to root for the home team with a ShackBurger in my hand. And when Bluejacket opens up, I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who’ll be more likely to head to a game.