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The Nationals have some terrific fans: People who are smart, rabid, passionate, incisive, and full of the kind of insight and bile and vitriol that only the deepest sports fandom can generate.
These are people who would celebrate deliriously if the team managed to pull off a miracle in the closing weeks of the season; who might happily light manager Matt Williams on fire if he makes one more inexplicable pitching change; and who will never, ever be invited to Thanksgiving dinner at relief pitcher Drew Storen’s house.
These are Good Baseball Fans™. I admire them, follow many of them on Twitter, and benefit from their analysis all season. I am also not even close to being one of them, in part because I, like so many people from this area around my age, grew up without baseball.
Whenever I say this around my mother, she takes offense and disputes it. She comes from a family where baseball fandom was important—we left a Washington Senators cap on my uncle’s grave—and she did her best to pass it on to me, even if it meant slogging up to Baltimore. (I’ve grown to love Baltimore, but I grew up in Montgomery County considering it a distant, unknowable wilderness, like New York City or the Thunderdome.)
She always points to a specific game we attended at Memorial Stadium as proof: There’s a picture of me in an Orioles jacket in the fake “locker room” set on the stadium concourse! I cheered the whole game! I got Cal Ripken’s autograph!
The last part is the only one I remember. We were watching the players during pre-game from seats fairly close in, and Ripken came over before heading into the dugout. It was his rookie season, so I was 5 or 6, and I remember the whole thing in one frozen image:
I was looking up at him, as I was both very small and seated, and the sky behind him was the brittle blue of idyllic baseball memories since time immemorial. His hair was very dark, spilling out from under the old-and-now-new-again cartoon bird cap, and his eyes were so blue that it was like you could see the sky through holes bored in his head. He smiled, signed a ball and a program, said something friendly, and then walked away to play in several thousand consecutive baseball games. It was the kind of moment that makes a baseball fan for life.
Except it didn’t. I lost the signed program within a week, and played catch with the signed ball for a few years before losing it also.
For some reason, people really seem to care if the Nationals have good fans. The most recent flare-up happened when Bryce Harper complained about fans leaving in the 7th inning in a crucial division game on Labor Day, but it’s been an incessant refrain from the Guardians of the Purity of Baseball Fandom for years.
Will Leitch, formerly of Deadspin, currently sportswriter-at-a-bunch-of-places, and always a St. Louis Cardinals homer, is maybe the patron saint of this particular cause. Occasionally parachuting in to remind Nats fans just how horrible they are is a pastime for Leitch. He played the inexperience card in 2012 (“they just don’t get all the little things”) and the D.C.-as-embodiment-of-disfunction card in 2014 (“With Congress at 15 percent approval ratings and the president in the low forties, it’s a wonder the Nationals aren’t as hated as the Yankees.”)
Leitch’s reasoning in that last piece may be totally faulty, but I have a suspicion that his underlying thesis—i.e., that the average casual Nats fan isn’t very good at rooting for this team—has merit. Hell, I am living proof of it.
And you know what? That seems pretty okay to me.
Survivor starts its 31st season this week. I couldn’t help but do some math when I saw that number. Thirty-one seasons at about 16 hours per season means that if you’ve watched every episode of every season, you have lost three full weeks of your life to Jeff Probst and his merry band. (And that’s three weeks watching Clockwork Orange-style, without eating or sleeping.) I was all set to be snarky about this, and then I thought about baseball.
The average length of a baseball game over the last two years is about three hours. That means that each year, if you’re a Real Baseball Fan and watch every game, you spend as many hours staring at baseball every season as our hypothetical Survivor superfan has spent on their show over its entire on-air lifetime.
I really have trouble casting aspersions on people who don’t want to make that level of commitment.
I enjoy watching the Nats. They’re a fun team with a lot of talent, and they—like the Capitals—are fortunate enough to have players whose ability is apparent to even the more casual viewer. Harper especially is a joy to watch. They offer the genuine hope of a postseason run, and sometimes they win games thrillingly. Despite that early September swoon, they’re making the end of the season a must-watch event. I enjoy the free McNuggets they earn for me when they score six runs.
And that seems like a pretty reasonable level of engagement to me, at this point.
No one likes to admit it, but the vast majority of fans are fair weather. Everyone remembers the glory years for the Pigskins—Parades! RFK stands bouncing! Peace and racial equality in the streets of D.C.!—but somehow forgets the long stretches prior to RFK when that was an easy ticket. Only through the Sonny Jurgensen years, the George Allen years, and into the championship era did the fanbase turn into the “greatest fans in football” or whatever. (And we’re now learning that there’s a half-life on that kind of loyalty, as Week One’s teal takeover of FedExField illustrated so clearly.)
And that’s football! Part of the success of football comes because it’s so easy to watch. Yes, there are long slow stretches during a football game, but the games only happen once a week, and it’s possible to catch up on all the developments in a single recap. There’s no farm league or developmental team to watch. You can check in once a week and have a pretty decent water cooler-level understanding of what’s going on.
To really follow baseball requires patience—an understanding of progress as a glacial shift over time, rather than the bipolar swings that characterize a football season. That can be tough to wrap your brain around, and it gets even tougher as we come to the end of the season and realize that now every game really does matter now and maybe you really shouldn’t be leaving in the 7th.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is this: Nationals fans are exactly where we should be right now. We’ve got our die-hard fans, who can confidently look to a future of disdaining the johnny-come-latelies like me, and we have a broader fanbase that’s learning and growing, even though there are hiccups here and there. And one day—with a little luck and some team success—we can all hope to become as pompous and sanctimonious as Cardinals fans.
Follow Matt on Twitter @matt_terl.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery