There’s a Byronic allure to being a market that’s cursed to deal with an ongoing cascade of sports catastrophes, not just a town full of bad teams. Sometimes I think we’re all prone to that, fans and media, and I agree with the people who say that D.C. sports angst is histrionic and overblown.
But then weeks like this one reappear.
First consider the Pigskins. They pulled a classic rope-a-dope, beginning with a win against a lowly opponent, showing promise and improvement across the board, to get fans just a little bit excited while their division rivals appear to completely implode. For three glorious days after that win, the team didn’t do anything overtly stupid, and national pundits were cautiously talking about their chances to sneak into a division championship.
On Thursday, though, the rightful order of the football universe was restored, as the team humiliated themselves in a mistake-filled performance against the Giants on national TV that would have been right at home in any of the last few disastrous seasons.
Then take the Terps, who were beyond humiliated at West Virginia, losing a game 45-6 that wasn’t nearly as close as the score implies. Head coach Randy Edsall’s job should be in jeopardy, although a recent Washington Post report quotes a number of boosters and decision-makers saying that Edsall is safe. It’s going to get much more difficult to make those assertions with a straight face if the team continues to be such a paragon of futility.
Then the Nationals finally, mercifully destroyed the last shreds of hope from their season and officially got themselves eliminated from the playoffs—an outcome that had taken on such a sense of inevitability that it barely even seemed worth noting.
All of those things, though—that’s all stuff that just happens to your basic bad teams. What happened next—what always happens next in D.C. sports—is that the losing escalated into farce.
On the Nationals’ Fan Appreciation Day—yes, Fan Appreciation Day—the second-to-last home game of the season, closer Jonathan Papelbon chided star Bryce Harper for not running hard to first on a fly-out. Things, as they say, escalated quickly, culminating with Papelbon choking Harper and slamming him into the dugout bench as teammates and coaches moved to separate the two.
Of course it was all caught on video, because it’s D.C. sports. Because it’s 2015, the video immediately got turned into GIFs and Vines and put on Twitter. And just like that, the Nationals—preseason World Series favorites—managed to make their elimination from the playoffs just their second-most embarrassing incident of the week.
Manager Matt Williams handled the situation with his characteristic mixture of no-nonsense bluntness and abject, baffling, tone-deaf stupidity. First, he left Papelbon in the game (where he promptly gave up five earned runs); then he defended his decision to leave Papelbon in the game; then he walked back his defense of the decision and claimed that he was the only person in the entire baseball-watching universe who didn’t realize quite what had happened.
The idiocy continued the next day. The team suspended Papelbon for the remainder of the season—which was a fine if meaningless and inadequate gesture—but also held Harper out of Monday’s home finale for his “part in the incident,” i.e., sticking his throat emphatically in front of Papelbon’s outstretched hand.
What’s most significant about this particular goat rodeo, though, is that it happened to the Nationals. The Pigskins manage to stage this kind of big-budget Hollywood disaster twice a week every offseason, but the Nationals were supposed to be the chance for a D.C. sports team to distinguish itself from a circus sideshow.
And they were so close! Their highly-touted early draft picks had actually blossomed more or less as they were supposed to—into stars (in Stephen Strasburg’s case) or MVP-level supernovas (in Harper’s). Their big-ticket offseason free agent signing seemed to have paid off, as starting pitcher Max Scherzer opened the season looking every bit the ace he was expected to be.
But there were still problems. Smart baseball people said from the outset that there was a lack of relief pitching on the team. The cost-cutting that drove the decisions at the closer slot created early problems. And the fix—a midseason trade for Papelbon—was widely derided as foolish from a baseball perspective and downright atrocious for clubhouse chemistry.
But this—the initial brawl and then the idiotic, ham-handed way in which it was handled—is the kind of thing that the Nats were supposed to leave to the meatheads in Ashburn. This is the kind of thing that changes the national perception of a team, turning a preseason favorite into an object of scorn. It’s the kind of thing that make people embarrassed to be fans.
And yet, as a D.C. sports fan, it’s the kind of thing that seems sadly inevitable.
Follow Matt Terl on Twitter @Matt_Terl
Photo by Darrow Montgomery