Many years ago, shortly after I first became a sportscaster in Washington, I was having a debate with some TV station colleagues about what story should lead the sportscast that night. It was February, so the Caps and Bullets were in midseason (yes, they were still the Bullets when I first got to town); college basketball was approaching the madness of March; and spring training for the Ripken-led Orioles had just begun. As the debate dragged on, a savvy veteran of Washington television entered the room, heard the arguments, and then offered a postulate he suggested I should live by for the duration of my tenure: “When in doubt, lead with the Redskins.”
Forget about the fact that the Redskins were out of season, and that a multitude of other meritorious sports stories were going on that day. “In Washington,” he continued, “the Redskins are stories A, B, and C.”
His point was well-taken. Back then, the Redskins were only a few years removed from their most recent Super Bowl win, and with the nearest baseball team 35 miles up the road and a hockey team that had yet to make a genuine dent in the sports landscape, there was validity to his theory. But I am here to suggest that as of this year, as of this late summer and autumn, the default “Redskins first” position in Washington no longer applies.
The Nationals have succeeded in wresting at least part of our attention away from our beleaguered football team. If that statement doesn’t apply to you, either you don’t like baseball or you haven’t been paying attention.
This year’s Nats are not just good. They appear to be great. They have been in first place for most of the season, and at various times they have had the best record in all of baseball. And while many in Washington have complained about the slow pace at which the Nationals evolved into a palatable product, I would argue that it happened faster than we could have reasonably demanded. Remember the abject disrepair in which this team was found when the Lerners took ownership. It had been badly mismanaged under the temporary stewardship of Major League Baseball, its farm system decimated, its scouting infrastructure neglected. The Expos were barely functioning when they became the Nationals in 2005. Eight years later we have a legitimate World Series contender.
By comparison, what do the Redskins have? By my account, they have a team that has produced poor-to-middling results for the past two decades, led by a capricious owner with a scattershot management style who has taken a once-glorious DC sports institution and fumbled into half-relevance. The Nationals have earned our attention. The Redskins have squandered it.
Of course, we live in a star-centric society, so naturally our attention is drawn to teams that assemble rosters laden with transcendent, unique talents. The Nats have done a masterful job of assembling just such a squad. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper are two of the three most exciting young players in baseball (the Angels’ Mike Trout is the only other one in their league). People want to see those guys play. People want to see how many Strasburg will whiff in his next start (however many are left); People want to see if Harper, barely older than the bat boys, will pound an even more prodigious homer than his last.
Who do the Redskins have? Seriously, what players do they have that excite you on that level, other than Robert Griffin III, who hasn’t played a down in the league yet, and who could turn out like JaMarcus Russell just as easily as he could Steve Young? Ryan Kerrigan? Nice player. Trent Williams? Drug suspension. Fred Davis? Drug suspension. London Fletcher? Great leader; tough as nails, but approaching AARP status. No one on the Redskins roster moves the needle like the stars the Nationals have assembled—and that’s without mentioning Ryan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, Drew Storen, Ian Desmond, and Danny Espinosa.
I get that the Redskins have the benefit of heritage. Ties have been built with their fan base over the course of generations, and I’m not suggesting that a few down decades should erode that loyalty. On the contrary, Redskins fans should keep pulling for their team. Football Sundays are part of Washington’s fabric, and this is a more vibrant, cohesive place in the fall when the Redskins are winning. But the team’s command of our attention is no longer exclusive, and no longer will we permit it to be taken for granted. There is another game in town, and at the moment, those other guys are doing it better. The Nationals will have my attention this fall. They’ve earned it. The Redskins need to do the same.