- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Game 162 for the Washington Nationals, the last of the regular season, had a spring training feel to it. The Wednesday afternoon crowd spent several innings filtering in and, judging from the constant chatter, seemed only moderately invested in the proceedings. It was more about Being There, drinking it all in, basking in the glow of the Nats’ impending playoff appearance, their first ever.

Throw in the 78 degree temperature and 71 percent humidity, and it could just as easily have been a game in Viera, Fla., in March. Which is only fitting. Back then, there was such anticipation about the Nationals, about Davey Johnson’s first full season as manager, Stephen Strasburg’s first full year back from Tommy John surgery and the team’s prospects for the season. And here it is six months later, and there’s that same sense of anticipation about the postseason.

Wonderful, ain’t it?

Let’s face it, this town hasn’t exactly been synonymous with sports success in recent decades. Its track record in baseball is particularly heinous. You wonder whether the Nats — many of them so young — understand what’s at stake here, what’s within their reach.

We’re talking about a lot more than just a National League pennant or a World Series ring. We’re talking about immortality. If the Nationals win it all, they’ll be remembered forever. Remembered the way Walter Johnson and the 1924 Senators are remembered. Remembered the way Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and the 1977-78 Bullets are remembered. Remembered the way John Riggins and the 1982 Redskins are remembered. That special kind of immortality that outlives ballparks and gets passed from one generation of fans to the next.

Win it all, and you’re eternal.

“I don’t think that’s something you even want anybody thinking about,” Adam LaRoche said, “because so many things have to go right for it to happen. When it’s all said and done, that’s when it would sink in.”

Still, there’s a hunger in D.C. for a championship — in any of the major sports. LaRoche can see it in “the difference between this year and last year, and how much the fans are eating it up and really jumping on board. [The scene at Nationals Park] isn’t as much of a social gathering now. I think before it was, ‘Let’s go hang out and have a few beers.’ It was something to do. And now it’s, ‘Let’s skip school. Let’s do whatever we can do to get to a Nats game.’”

This is the season that everything changed for the franchise. Until now, the Nats have been little more than an opponent on another club’s schedule, a card to be punched. But now they’re officially one of the Haves, with a future as bright as their present. It’s a bit disorienting, the suddenness of it.

But it means so much to an organization — especially this one, which didn’t have much to brag about in its Montreal incarnation, either. A season like this basically announces to the world: You can win in Washington. It’s no longer just a Paycheck Place. It also tells the players on the current Nationals roster, who will be free agents one day: The grass isn’t necessarily greener somewhere else. The contract might be greener, but grass might not be. When you’re trying to build something lasting, it can be a helpful selling point.

LaRoche, Jayson Werth and Edwin Jackson, among others, can look at one another now and think: We were right to come to Washington. What we thought could happen here has happened. But then, so many things have turned out right for the Nats, as they always do with winning teams.

It was right, for instance, to make the megatrade for Gio Gonzalez, even if it meant giving up a fistful of prospects. You can’t argue with 21 wins.

It was right to be patient with Ian Desmond, who morphed from a maddeningly inconsistent shortstop into a power-hitting All-Star.

It was right to bring up Bryce Harper from Triple-A in late April, even though it went against Mike Rizzo’s timetable. All Harper has done is have one of the greatest years by a teenager in major league history.

It was right to shut down Jordan Zimmermann last August as he continued his recovery from arm surgery. (I mean, look at him now.) It was right to bite the bullet and pay $11 million for one year of Edwin Jackson. It was right to make the late-season deal for Kurt Suzuki. It was right, for that matter, to put the health of Strasburg ahead of the health of the club’s playoff chances.

“Any given team can do [what the Nationals have done],” Desmond said. “I mean, look at the Oakland Athletics. Nobody took them seriously — and people still don’t, in a sense. It’s about getting a good group of guys together. [It’s about] knowing that the general manager is going to go after good character guys, that he isn’t just going to go get the most expensive player on the market but one that fits with our ballclub. That’s something that’s more telling, I think. We’re putting together good character ballclubs year after year after year, and I think [Mike] Rizzo deserves a lot of credit for that.”

I’ll reserve judgment on whether it was right to let Teddy Roosevelt finally win the Presidents Race on the final day of the regular season. In many ways, Teddy, with his repeated failures, had come to symbolize this floundering franchise. But that franchise doesn’t exist anymore. In its place we have a team that, after Wednesday’s 5-1 win over Philadelphia, has the best record in baseball — and now has an opportunity to become immortal.

But here’s the best part: It might not be the Nats’ only opportunity.