When Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo made a preseason prediction that Nationals Park would become “the ticket in town” — and team manager Davey Johnson subsequently called Washington “a baseball town, not a football town” — both men raised eyebrows.
Washington — first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League — a baseball town?
For decades, the question was moot, as relevant as, Can Omaha become a leading Spring Break destination? After all, Washington lacked a major league franchise — and even when the Montreal Expos became the Nationals in 2005, ending the city’s 33-year baseball drought, poor play and civic apathy soon followed, season after slouching season, as seemingly inevitable as muggy August afternoons.
The Nationals are 18-10, tied for the third-best record in the majors. Between rookie sensation Bryce Harper and pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals have what Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci calls “already two of the five biggest drawing cards” in the sport.
Last weekend, the Nationals won two of three games against the Philadelphia Phillies, the five-time defending NL East champions and reigning neighborhood bullies. More importantly, turnout was high — 106,931 fans over three days, the second largest total for a Nationals home series in April or May — and loudly favored the home team, reversing a trend of Phillies fans overrunning Nationals Park in recent seasons.
A losing legacy
For most of Washington’s history, baseball has meant two things: (a) Losing; (b) All of the above.
Granted, Washington baseball was once respectable. Behind Hall of Famers such as Walter Johnson, the Senators captured the 1924 World Series and the American League pennant in 1925 and 1933.After losing the 1933 World Series to the New York Giants, however, the team slid into prolonged ineptitude.
When the Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961, their expansion replacements proved equally inept. (They’d been rushed into existence to protect Major League Baseball’s Congressional antitrust exemption — and could anything be more Washington?) The club enjoyed a single winning season over 11 years and ultimately bolted for Texas, though not before angry fans stormed the field and forced a forfeit loss to the Yankees in their final game.
Since arriving from Montreal, the current Nationals haven’t been much better, with a moderately successful inaugural campaign giving way to six straight losing seasons and the team finishing in the bottom third of attendance among NL clubs despite playing in a new ballpark.
Last year, the Nationals even had the smallest number of Facebook fans of any MLB franchise — with just more than 76,000, they weren’t even in the, er, same league as the Yankees’ majors-leading 3.3 million.
“Washington has never really had a championship baseball club, per se,” said manager Davey Johnson, a former Senators batboy who grew up in the area. “Back in the 1950s, my next door neighbor was a pitcher for the [Senators]. I remember him balking with the bases loaded against the Yankees.” Johnson played for the Orioles from 1965 to 1972.
“When I was a rookie in Baltimore, I was a football fan, a Baltimore Colts fan,” he said. “They had [Hall of Fame quarterback] Johnny Unitas and company. I became a basketball fan when the [Baltimore] Bullets had Wes Unseld and Kevin Loughery and Earl “the Pearl” [Monroe]. Because they won.”
Mediocre, absentee baseball left locals looking elsewhere, investing their athletic passions in a series of short-term flings — the Gilbert Arenas-era Washington Wizards; the currently contending Washington Capitals — and an enduring, up-and-down love affair with the Washington Redskins.