- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2012


The Nationals played seven forgettable, regrettable seasons in Washington before establishing themselves among the majors’ best teams this year. It seems like only yesterday that they compiled back-to-back 100-loss campaigns, while finishing last in the NL East five times in their first six seasons in D.C. There were times when you wondered if the Nats ever would field a winner.

D.C. baseball fans were elated to have a team again but still scarred from the Washington Senators experience, Parts I and II. The Expos ended the District’s 33-year streak without Major League Baseball when MLB relocated them from Montreal in 2005, but the clock on playoff-free baseball kept ticking, hitting 78 years entering this season.

Now the countdown has stopped and the Nats have arrived, sending waves of relief and joy through the city. Although the pace might have felt torturous, D.C. actually reached this point quicker than most cities that received new or relocated teams in MLB’s Expansion Era (post-1960).

“I was just thrilled to get a team in 2005,” said Steve Buckhantz, a native Washingtonian and longtime sports broadcaster who has called Wizards games for 15 seasons. Buckhantz remembers being taken out of elementary school by his grandfather to go watch Senators games on Opening Day.

“When I hear people say we haven’t had a winner since 2005, that was like last year,” he said. “Not only is what we’re experiencing still new, but to have a team this successful right now it doesn’t seem like it’s taken that long, only seven years. That’s crazy.”

The Nats have posted their first winning record and captured their first playoff berth in their eighth season. That’s molasses compared to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who accomplished both feats in their second season (1999), or the Colorado Rockies, who turned that double play in their third season (1995). But it’s still pretty quick overall.

Out of 17 expansion or relocated teams since 1961, 10 needed fewer than eight seasons to compile their first winning record. But only six teams — including Miami, Atlanta, Minnesota and Oakland — reached the playoffs in fewer than eight seasons.

Minnesota made out pretty well with the original Senators, as the Twins posted a winning record in their second season (1962) and were in the playoffs by their fifth. (By comparison, those Senators weren’t over .500 for their last eight seasons in D.C. and hadn’t reached the postseason since 1933).

But Texas got a taste of what Washingtonians grew accustomed to with the expansion Senators. Sure, the Rangers were over .500 in their third season (1974) — whereas the expansion Senators eclipsed the mark just once in their 11 seasons. But the Rangers didn’t make it to the playoffs until their 25th season. So there! 

Teams such as the Marlins and Athletics created a warped sense of time, as they were ridiculously quick in achieving remarkable success.

The Marlins took a triple crown in Year 5 of their existence (1997): first winning record, first postseason berth and first World Series championship. The Athletics treated Oakland to nine consecutive winning seasons off the bat, including a playoff appearance in the fourth season (1971) followed by back-to-back-to-back World Series titles.

No team compares to Arizona, which won the 2001 World Series as a 4-year-old franchise. But Nats fans really have nothing to complain about.

If anything, Washington’s modern-day club could be baseball’s luckiest franchises ever. The two worst seasons coincided with the availability of once-in-a-generation players (Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper) in successive drafts. Never have 205 combined losses paid off so handsomely.

Unlike Rangers fans, the Nats’ followers didn’t have to wait a quarter of a century to experience postseason baseball. Fans of the Angels, Astros and Mariners had to endure 19 seasons apiece before playoff thrills became more than a dream. The Padres took 16 years to keep playing beyond the regular season; the Brewers needed a dozen years, and the Nats’ forebears (the Montreal Expos) needed 13.

Relatively speaking, the Nats have proceeded to this level in almost no time. Attendance has lagged behind — apparently waiting for more visible progress — but interest and enthusiasm is catching up. It’s also spilling over to create new fans and draw more casual observers. Buckhantz has seen this script before. He dismisses suggestions that D.C.’s support won’t be worthy of the Nats’ accomplishments.

“Give this city a consistent winner, and they’re going to come out,” he said. “Look at the Capitals. Eight years ago, you couldn’t put 6,000 people in Verizon Center. Now you can’t get a ticket. That’s the best example. If the Nationals are vying for the division title each year, people will come out.”

Considering the roster and its youthful nature, it looks like the Nats will contend for awhile.

Upon further review, the evolution didn’t take long all.

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