Back to the Bad Old Days for This Nationals Fan
By Steve Jaeger
It’s Baseball Season and there are no games.
As someone who has lived in the Washington, DC area I should be used to this. For thirty-four of the fifty-two years I have lived in the area ,we had no Opening Day in the Nation’s Capital. When I came here from New York in 1968 we had the hapless Senators, not the original hapless Senators but the expansion hapless Senators who began play after the original hapless Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961. The expansion team was dreadful but the year after I moved to the area the team hired Ted Williams, that Ted Williams to manage the team. Ted wasn’t much of a manager, he could not understand why everyone couldn’t hit like he had but he did coax the team to its first winning record in its history. The team’s owner, a political operative named Bob Short had bought the team on margin and when the team did not generate the kind of income he needed off he ran to Texas where the hapless Senators became the hapless Rangers after the 1971 season. The next time I set foot in RFK Stadium was on July 4th, 1972 for a Rolling Stones Concert. The diamond was still in place and the stage was set up at second base. RFK was home to the NFL Redskins and an entire generation of Washingtonians grew up without ever having seen a baseball game there.
DC baseball fans could schlep up Route 95 to see the Orioles in Baltimore and many of them became fans and remain so to this day. MLB considered the O’s a regional franchise but would still dangle an occasional team to DC, usually as a way to get the city where the team was located to cough up a new stadium. Over the years we heard that San Diego, San Francisco and Pittsburgh were halfway packed to move east. Fans in DC, me among them, deposited money into phantom season ticket accounts to show MLB we were serious about supporting a new team; nothing ever came of it. One thing the magnates never understood is despite close proximity, DC and Baltimore are two completely different cities and cultures. Those of us on the south shore of the Potomac are convinced that Marylanders are by birth the worst drivers in the country and it only gets worse the closer you get to Charm City. I’m sure Marylanders have similar ideas about Virginians, they’re wrong of course.
I attended many games in Baltimore as it was the only game in town but the Orioles were never my team. I rooted for my childhood team, the Yankees until the team’s notorious owner George Steinbrenner who seemed to enjoy firing managers fired Sweet Lou Pinella after the 1989 season. That was the last straw for me, I began following the Atlanta Braves mainly because the entire 162 game schedule was broadcast for free on the Super Station, WTBS. We would occasionally drive up to Philly when the Braves were in town but watching games at Veteran’s Stadium was not a pleasant experience for the visiting team’s fans.
Then something remarkable happened.
The Boston Red Sox were looking for new owners, and just by coincidence the owner of the Florida Marlins, John Henry wanted to buy the Sox and just by coincidence the owner of the hapless Montreal Expos, Jeffrey Luria wanted to buy the Marlins. Unfortunately no one wanted to buy the Expos. Major League Baseball then pulled off a stunning shell game and Henry got the Sox, Luria got the Fish and MLB’s twenty-nine owners collectively got the Expos. Luria left Montreal and took with him the team, all its equipment right down to the phones. He set up shop in Miami where in a city full of Cubans he still could not draw crowds. The MLB owners treated the Expos like their own personal farm team and in the city where Jackie Robinson broke into organized baseball, the team couldn’t even get a TV contract. Enter baseball starved Washington, DC; did the city want a team? Yup! Would the city shell out millions in taxpayer money to build a stadium? Yup! OK, you got yourself a team, go find somebody to buy it. Fans in the Nation’s Capital were giddy but the DC City Council had to make some noise first. OK said MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, I’m sure Las Vegas would love to get the team. No, no Bud, don’t listen to those guys, here’s your bags of money, we’re going to call the team the Nationals.
On an April evening in 2005 The Washington Nationals or the Nats as they were already being called played their first home game at a packed RFK Stadium. Anyone who was anyone in DC was there and most of them never set foot in the place again. I went to my first game that week and kept on coming back, I almost cried when my daughter who was about ten at the time sat munching on a hotdog and said, “I love baseball”. For the first half of 2005 the Nats surprised everyone and sat atop the National League East but after the All Star Break in mid July finishing the year below .500. The team played at RFK through the 2007 season and then moved into their brand new home, Nationals Park close to the Washington Navy Yard. The team had several horrible seasons as the new owners, the Lerner Family and GM Mike Rizzo gradually rebuilt the depleted farm system that MLB had left them. I had a Sunday season ticket plan and there were games, particularly after the start of football season where my kids and I were the only ones in the entire section. Most games the visiting team’s fans outnumbered the home team’s. Philly fans were particularly obnoxious and would come down in busses and take over entire sections of the park while chanting, “This is our house!”
Those horrible seasons though brought great draft picks like Stephen Strasberg and Bryce Harper and in 2012 Washington won the NL East and there was post-season baseball in DC for the first time since 1933. The Nats were playing the St Louis Cardinals and forced a game five after a thrilling come from behind win on a homerun by Jayson Werth. The Nats took the lead into the ninth inning in game five and with two outs, our closer, Drew Storen melted down and the Cards took the series. Washington made the post season again and again but could never advance beyond the first round. In 2019 the team had a terrible start and were written off but in mid May they began to win and kept up the pace through the season. They made the post season in one of the two wild card slots and had a one game playoff the heavily favored Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers took a lead late into the game but the Nats came back and won the game. One of the announcers said, “Now the Nationals have the privilege of going up against the buzz saw that is the Los Angeles Dodgers”. The Nats forced a Game Five and once again, late in the game facing elimination, the Nats came back, took the game and the series. Next up, their nemesis, The St Louis Cardinals awaited. To everyone’s surprise the Nats swept the series in convincing fashion and were on their way to the World Series against either the Yankees or Houston Astros. Houston won a thrilling series and the 2017 World Champions were licking their chops to go up against the newbies.
Game one was played in Houston, Max Sherzer for Washington against Gerritt Cole, the Houston Ace. Houston took a lead into the late innings but the Nats came back and took the game. The next night Strasberg took the mound against Justin Verlander, the Nats won the game in convincing fashion and headed back to DC with a commanding lead. This of course is Washington where championships go to die and Houston swept all three games. For game six in Houston, Stephen Strasberg our first number one draft pick, pitched an unbelievable game and took the victory to force a game seven. For the deciding game, our ace Max Sherzer who was battling a gimpy shoulder was up against Zack Greinke, a well traveled right hander that Houston had signed late in the season. Greinke was on point and took a 2–0 lead into the seventh inning. Once again facing elimination the Nats came back and won the game and their first World Championship in franchise history.
Washington, DC erupted.
Now six months later, the weekend where the team would hoist it’s Championship Banner, the city, the country and the world are locked down. There is no baseball, there is no nothing. Like thirty-four Aprils that came before there is no baseball in DC. Right now no one really knows if there will even be a 2020 Season. I used to say that if I could see the Nats win the World Series I could die happy. Cooped up in my small apartment with my cat while a plague rages outside I hope fate was not listening. I’d like to amend my earlier statement and say if the Nats can win back to back to back World Series I can die happy. That will give me a little breathing room.
This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.