Imagine a brand new restaurant. After months of toil, during which the chef and his staff pour their souls into perfecting a menu and creating a first-class dining experience, the food critic finally shows up—and they burn his meal. That’s what the Nationals did this weekend.
The Yankees don’t come to town very often. In fact, they haven’t been to DC since 2006, and they likely won’t be back again until 2018. The Bronx Bombers’ mass appeal put fannies in the seats at Nationals Park that had never been there before. The average attendance for the three-game series was 41,378. It was precisely the kind of product sampling Nationals management had been hoping for, and in getting swept by New York, the Nats dropped the ball—both literally and, at times, figuratively.
It’s a shame. Given what the Nationals have accomplished this season, they deserved better karma when the city finally cast its collective eyes upon them. In fact, before firing blanks at the Yankees, the Nats had completed one of the most heroic and improbable feats in team history: sweeping a six-game road trip through Boston and Toronto. That’s right, the Nationals went into Fenway Park and put a three-game beat-down on the vaunted Red Sox.
Many cited the Beantown triumph as the moment the Nationals finally “arrived” as a franchise. On the contrary, I suggest the Nationals will only have arrived once we stop identifying the sweep of a three-game regular season road series as an occasion for their arrival. I believe they will have arrived when they regularly fill their stadium with fans eager to see their own team as opposed to the visiting opposition. The Nats are getting closer, but they’re not all the way there.
Last week, Chuck Sapienza, program director for ESPN-980, Washington’s longest standing sports-talk radio station, held an online chat in which he fielded several questions about why the station’s hosts don’t talk about the Nationals more. Sapienza’s answer was both succinct and brutally honest: “If we try to do a Nats phone segment, the phones just do not ring like [with] the other sports.”
That statement brings an age-old question into very specific relief: Is Washington a great sports town, or is it merely a great Redskins town? Sapienza’s station has no shortage of callers when they talk about Robert Griffin III or Mike Shanahan. Can the Nats penetrate the armor of this town’s sports sensibilities? Can anyone?
It seems the Capitals have, but that may only have been recently. The Ovechkin era changed everything for the Caps in terms of their acceptance in Washington’s mainstream. Once the team had a marquis star, a young nucleus around him, and a demonstrated pattern of winning over a period of years, the Caps became hip. Their games became a social destination. The Nationals, whether by design or by chance, seem to be following the same blueprint. They have the benefit of not one, but two tent-pole stars in Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper (three if you count Ryan Zimmerman), surrounded by a nucleus of exciting young players that includes Drew Storen, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Jordan Zimmermann, and Gio Gonzalez. Their sudden and unexpected rise to first place this year has lit a fire under the team’s loyal fan base; now they need that fire to spread.
We need to occasionally remind ourselves that the Nationals have only existed for eight seasons. Fan loyalty cannot be hatched in an incubator. It needs to develop organically over time, over generations. The Caps were born in 1974, and when they made the Stanley Cup Finals 24 years later, their arena was still largely populated by opposing fans. The Los Angeles Kings entered the NHL in 1967 and were largely irrelevant on the LA sports landscape until Wayne Gretzky came to town in 1988. After Gretzky left in 1996, the team returned to secondary status in Hollywood until they won the cup last week.
The Nationals should be applauded. They have not been rash. They have not succumbed to the urge to take a shortcut. The Lerners have been willing to accept the slings and arrows of both the fans and the media, who wanted a winning team faster. But the new owners stayed the course. When they sensed they were getting close to winning, they opened up the checkbook, at the urging of rising star general manager Mike Rizzo, for Jayson Werth. And while Werth has paid almost no dividend on the field (though he may yet), his signing sent a signal to every big-time player and agent around Major League Baseball that the Nats were open for business. It made the team a legitimate player in the market for bona fide stars. That reputation will serve the Nats well down the road when they go shopping for a finishing piece to their puzzle.
This is the type of systematic, logical, thoughtful team building that will eventually weave the Nationals into the fabric of Washington’s sports traditions. A couple of wins at home against the Yankees wouldn’t have hurt, either.