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Calvin Coolidge didn't care for baseball. But Grace Coolidge was the biggest baseball fan to inhabit the White House. By Benjamin Freed
The Coolidges at a Washington Senators game in 1923. Grace Coolidge appears excited to be there, while the President's expression is an early example of "¯\_(ツ)_/¯." Photograph via Library of Congress.

The Nationals' fourth-inning Racing Presidents sideshows will get even more crowded starting Friday when the club adds a mascot version of Calvin Coolidge to the line-up. As unwieldy as a six-president race seems—the 30th President's likeness will join those of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft—the addition of Coolidge is part of a marketing agreement between the Nationals and the White House Historical Association, which is selling a Christmas ornament (yes, even though it's July) commemmorating Coolidge's presidency.

And one of the hallmarks of Coolidge's two terms was his attendance at baseball games, including the 1924 World Series, the last time a team from Washington won. He even threw out the ceremonial first pitch in Game 1. All told, Coolidge attended ten Senators games during his six years in office, giving baseball in Washington a close visual association with the White House.

"We really entered into something of the modern era in the ’20s, and Coolidge should be much better known," Matt Denhart, the president of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, told the Washington Post, which first reported Coolidge's addition to the fourth-inning race. "We kind of see this as a hook to get people’s interest, and to try to teach them more about Coolidge than just that he was the president."

But if the Nationals, the White House Historical Association, and the Coolidge Foundation really want people to learn more about Coolidge and baseball, they should start by telling the truth: he just wasn't that into the national pasttime. Published accounts of Coolidge's attendance at baseball games paint him as a disinterested man who only went to Griffith Stadium for the sake of political optics.

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Posted at 03:22 PM/ET, 07/01/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
It wasn't many. By Benjamin Freed
Sepp Blatter, in less litigious times. Photograph by 360b via Shutterstock.

AMC Loews's Shirlington 7 movie theater in Arlington was one of only ten theaters around the country last weekend to screen United Passions, a movie about the history of FIFA and financed mostly by FIFA. Judging from the box-office numbers, it appears cinematic portrayals of soccer executives do not inspire the same fervor as a month of international fixtures. United Passions, which stars Tim Roth as now-defrocked FIFA President Sepp Blatter, made just $161 in Arlington over the weekend, according to the Hollywood Reporter. That figure translates to roughly 14 or 15 tickets to the movie, which one critic compared to excrement.

There might be a silver lining in that ugly total for area soccer die-hards: The $161 United Passions made in Arlington is more than one-quarter of its total US box-office haul of $607. Only a theater in Los Angeles raked in more ($3 more, but still).

But, hey, international soccer has had a rough go in the past couple weeks, with the Justice Department practically dismantling FIFA for its alleged lucre. If you're one of the dozen or so Washington residents who actually saw United Passions, send us a 300-word review along with a photograph of your ticket stub. We'll buy you a Bud Light Lime for your trouble.

Here's the uncomfortable trailer for United Passions, which no amount of Bud Light Lime can help you un-see:

Posted at 10:31 AM/ET, 06/08/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
But Washington fans are used to the feeling. By Harry Jaffe
Photograph by Flickr user slgckgc.

Washington sports fans suffer from star worship that, too often, ends in dissapointment. It's the perpetual outcome of a warped religion, one rooted in false hopes that the latest flashy draft pick will be their favorite team’s savior.

Remember the hype when the Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg with their No. 1 pick in 2009? Twenty team officials held a press conference at Nationals Park. Washington Post sports writer Chico Harlan hyperventilated that Strasburg “might just save the franchise.”

The hometown press whipped Strasburg into a fine froth that made him out to be the second coming of Greg Maddux. He came with a pinpoint fastball and a knee-bucking sinker. His agent, Scott Boras, negotiated a contract that'll pay him $7.4 million this year and set him up for a windfall signing once he hits free agency. But once Strasburg took the mound, he revealed himself to be merely mortal. Through five seasons he’s pitched very well and very badly. He needed elbow surgery. A season after leading the National Leage in strikeouts, Strasburg this year has stumbled from Opening Day.

He went three-and-a-half innings May 23 before the woeful Phillies chased him off the mound with six runs. The last time out he threw 16 pitches, complained of a stiff neck and handed the ball over to manager Matt Williams. Now he’s on the 15-day disabled list with a mysterious back injury.

“Something’s causing him discomfort in his upper back,” Williams told reporters. “The fact that it switched sides wouldn’t point to anything structural. We’ve got to figure it out.”

The Nationals might be a young team, but perpetually broken heroes are old hat in Washington sports. The local NFL franchise is staked for at least one more season to shaky-kneeed quarterback Robert Griffin, III. Like Strasburg, Griffin came with a great pedigree: He won the Heisman Trophy at Baylor. When the team traded away six future draft selections for the rights to take Griffin with the second pick in 2012, reporters pumped him up to be the savior of the befuddled Dan Snyder era.

“After years of trying,” Mark Maske wrote in the Post, "the Redskins hope they finally have landed a dynamic player at the sport’s most important position who can help rekindle the franchise’s past success.”

We all know what happened to Griffin. He had a great rookie year. But thanks to then-coach Mike Shanahan playing him on a gimpy knee, Griffin needed massive surgery and missed nearly the whole of the next two seasons without ever show a flash of his first-year mastery. RGIII is still the starter going into the 2015 season, but barring an unexpected return to excellence, he'll be suiting up in a different color scheme next year.

The most truly religious moment in DC sports' last decade might have come on the sidelines when Snyder brought back Joe Gibbs, who guided Washington to three Super Bowl victories in the 1980s and 1990s, to lead his team “back to championship glory.” It was the old man's “second coming,” to many fans.

Of course Gibbs fizzled. He rang up some decent seasons, and his teams reached the playoffs twice, but they never made it past the first round. At least Snyder let him retire with a bit of dignity, rather than toss another body into the FedEx Field parking lot.

High expectations, especially those molded around a single player or coach, often lead to major disappointment. Sports Illustrated joined the nattering sports prognosticators and picked the Nationals to win the 2015 World Series. Several players responded by promptly breaking down. Anthony Rendon, who led the National League in runs last year, remains on an extended rehabilitation assignment that may finally end this month. Jayson Werth broke his wrist and will be gone until August. Strasburg joined starter Doug Fister on the disabled list. But even with these momentary losses, the Nats have surged to first place because they're a well structured team, rather than one that hinges on a single player. Yunel Escobar, brought in to cover third base, will almost certainly stay in the everyday lineup when Rendon gets back; the outfield is adequately covered by a platoon of Tyler Moore, Michael Taylor, Denard Span (who appears to be in fine form after missing the first two weeks), and Bryce Harper, who is finally surpassing the hype that greeted his own No. 1 selection the year after Strasburg's. And while Strasburg has been frustrating, the Nationals' latest prize Boras client, Max Scherzer, has not.

But it's the surprising successes that are the sweetest. Not many picked the Washington Wizards to make a deep run NBA playoffs, yet they almost made it to the Eastern Conference finals. Who knew Paul Pierce would find his third or fourth wind?

Take it from a Philadelphia Phillies fan. Hype leads to heartbreak. Losing builds strength, like rooting for a franchise that’s lost more than 10,000 games. The path to a World Series championship requires healthy players, unexpected heroes, and teams that get hot at the right time. No team can make it on the back of one pitcher (see Hamels, Cole), especially one that comes up stiff too often.

Posted at 04:59 PM/ET, 06/02/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
It would be Metro-accessible, eventually. By Benjamin Freed
Rendering by Populous via DC United.

Washington's soccer crazies are in fits of apoplexy over Washington Post reporter Jonathan O'Connell's screamer that DC United may abandon its deal with the District government for a new stadium on Southwest's Buzzard Point for the distant pastures of Loudoun County. But there's an argument to be made for a suburban stadium: It might actually be easier to get there than to one inside city limits.

O'Connell reports that the soccer club, which was recently honored by the statehood-advocacy group DC Vote for its committment to the District, has spent the past three weeks stepping out with Virginia officials including Governor Terry McAuliffe. Meanwhile, DC officials are still grappling to acquire the parcels of land that make up the city's planned nine-acre stadium site. Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration still needs to get two acres from the development firm Akridge, which was to swap its plot for the Frank D. Reeves Center at 14th and U streets, Northwest under the original stadium plan signed by former Mayor Vince Gray. (The Post reports the city is likely to use eminent domain to get Akridge's land.) Loudoun, on the other hand, claims to have land ready to go.

Loudoun is also competing on stadium costs. DC's planned soccer stadium—the most expensive in Major League Soccer history—would cost taxpayers up to $150 million to develop the site and $43 million in future lost tax revenues, with the team fronting the costs for the actual structure. A Loudoun stadium could be $38 million cheaper, the Post reports.

But Loudoun County's biggest advantage over DC in serving a soccer stadium is in accessibility via public transportation. One of Loudoun County's proposed sites, according to the Post, is next to the future Loudoun Gateway Metro station on Old Ox Road. The Buzzard Point site is currently served by Metro's 74 bus, and it's about a three-quarter-mile walk from the Navy Yard Metrorail station. The DC stadium would, in theory, be served by a north-south streetcar line between Buzzard Point and Takoma or Silver Spring.

If the soccer stadium's fate rests only on imaginary modes of transportation, Loudoun County's site, 35 miles away from United's current home at dilapidated Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, wins. The Silver Line, though delayed until 2020 (three years after Loudoun County officials reportedly say a stadium would open there), will get there eventually. Considering the troubled history of DC's first streetcar line, United fans are as likely to ride unicorns to Buzzard Point as they are a trolley.

Posted at 11:49 AM/ET, 06/02/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The Baltimore Orioles played one of the most memorable games ever without anyone really seeing it. By Benjamin Freed
Yes, there's a baseball game going on back there. Photographs by Benjamin Freed.

Ask anyone who stood outside the gates of Camden Yards, or on the roof deck of the Hilton across the street, or poured beers behind a South Paca Street bar to describe Wednesday's game between the Orioles and the Chicago White Sox, and the answer will be, almost universally, "It's weird."

Baseball has a long history in Baltimore, but fans never expected their latest milestone would be hosting what historians believe is the first game in Major League Baseball to be played in front of a recorded crowd of zero. Less than three miles from the epicenter of the outrage that has shut down swaths of this city's daily bustle, two MLB teams are playing a routine game in which the only spectators are the 92 accredited journalists in the press box, far more than the number that should be covering a late-April game. But this is what happens when strife like that uncorked by the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who was mortally wounded while in police custody, interferes with professional sports.

"It is strange," says Terri Biggins, a nurse at the University of Maryland Medical Center, which is just a few blocks from the stadium. "It's got to be hard to start a rally."

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Posted at 03:47 PM/ET, 04/29/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Robert Griffin, III will be here through at least 2016. By Benjamin Freed
Griffin, in one of his rare ambulatory moments last season. Photograph by Flickr user Keith Allison.

Washington's quarterback controversy will continue through the 2016 NFL season with Dan Snyder's brain trust picking up a fifth-year option on Robert Griffin, III worth $16.2 million. The decision, which was first reported by NFL.com and confirmed Monday by general manager Scot McCloughan, could mean at least two more years of the team placing its fate in the hands of a passer whose every step induces panic over the ligaments in his knees.

Griffin, who is going into his fourth season, only played nine games last year, and just seven of those as the starter. Despite two disappointing seasons in a row, Griffin hasn't lost his messianic lock on the starting job—head coach Jay Gruden said in February that Griffin will start again when Washington opens its 2015 season on September 13 against the Miami Dolphins.

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Posted at 01:03 PM/ET, 04/27/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
"I've already voiced my objections," he says.

If you're still steamed about the Washington Nationals' move to replace Chuck Brown's classic "Bustin' Loose" with the Jessie J-Ariana Grande-Nicki Minaj collaboration "Bang Bang" as their home-run celebration song—and judging by the 619 people who have now signed an online petition against it, you are—there's at least one team employee claiming innocence: the stadium's in-game DJ.

Zechariah Wise, an Alexandria record producer who moonlights as the team's music man, has taken a bit of heat on Twitter over the home-run-song swap. But he says he doesn't deserve the blame:

And in case Wise's denial isn't enough, a tweet he posted Monday night after Washingtonian first reported the absence of "Bustin' Loose" could offer a cryptic hint:

Wise did not return a phone message or email about his tweets.

Posted at 06:11 PM/ET, 04/21/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The "Bustin' Loose" singer's family says it's up to the team, but they appreciate the support from fans. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Flickr user mrgarethm.

The news yesterday that the Washington Nationals have swapped out Chuck Brown's "Bustin' Loose" for a hit single by in-the-moment Jessie J and Ariana Grande as their home-run celebration song was not greeted very warmly by many of the team's fans. But a statement from Brown's family is as cool as the late Godfather of Go-Go himself.

"The Brown family has always been appreciative of the inclusion of the song and the respect it paid to Chuck Brown and the music of DC and Chuck was honored to perform at RFK during the seventh-inning stretch of the first ever Nationals home game," reads the statement, sent by Brown's manager, Tom Goldfogle. "If the Nationals feel another direction is appropriate, that is their prerogative. Chuck would have supported either way, because it was DC."

After Washingtonian reported yesterday that the Nationals had switched from "Bustin' Loose" to "Bang Bang," the team told the Washington Post that the musical shuffle was made at the behest of fans saying "they would like to hear a broader genre of songs incorporated into our game day experience."

The Nationals, judging by the players' walk-up music, appear to have a fairly robust musical palate that includes hip-hop, alternative rock, Top 40 hits, country, dad rock, reggaeton, and the theme song to at least one HBO series. While the team told the Post that Brown "remains part of our rotation—including home run celebrations," it hasn't played over the Nationals Park public-announcement after the seven home runs the team has hit there so far this season.

While Brown's family is conciliatory toward the Nationals, Goldfogle also says they were unaware that "Bustin' Loose" had been dropped from home-run celebrations. Some fans, after venting on social media, created a petition to return Brown's 1979 hit to its former cue. It has 249 signatories as of this writing.

Full statement from Brown's family:

They did not make us aware. The Brown family has always been appreciative of the inclusion of the song and the respect it paid to Chuck Brown and the music of DC and Chuck was honored to perform at RFK during the 7th inning stretch of the first ever Nationals home game. If the Nationals feel another direction is appropriate, that is their prerogative. Chuck would have supported either way, because it was DC. That being said, they deeply appreciate the display of support in favor of the song over the past 24 hours.

Posted at 09:55 AM/ET, 04/21/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
The team no longer plays "Bustin' Loose" after home runs. By Benjamin Freed
Chuck Brown recording a music video in LeDroit Park in 2007. Photograph by Flickr user Dale Sundstrom.

When the Washington Nationals moved to their city-funded stadium in 2008, the team polled its fans to determine one of the most critical traditions for any baseball park: the song played after a player on the home team hits a home run.

To the relief of many, Nationals fans picked Chuck Brown's "Bustin' Loose," with the go-go anthem beating worn-out jock jams like Blur's "Song 2," Fat Boy Slim's "Because We Can," and Zombie Nation's "Kernkraft 400." Since then, "Bustin' Loose" has been a familiar refrain at Nationals games.

But on Friday, the Nationals' two home runs were followed by a different tune: "Bang Bang," a 2014 single by Jessie J, Ariana Grande, and Nicki Minaj. Fans have noticed the lack of "Bustin' Loose" since Opening Day on April 6, when Bryce Harper hit one out.

Why did the Godfather of Go-Go get the heave in favor of a flash-in-the-pan hit that briefly flirted with the No. 2 spot on Billboard's Hot 100 chart? The Nationals declined multiple requests for an explanation, but the team's fans are not happy about the new music.

"I have been in this city since 1971, and Chuck Brown is DC," says Susan Vavrick, a senior editor for NPR.org who attends about 40 games a year. "It was such a good followup for a home run."

Vavrick's fellow fans have not been silent about their confusion and frustration over the musical change, either:

If the Nationals are trying to restrain their DC exceptionalism, "Bustin' Loose" never sounded like self-limiting celebration music. It is unquestionably one of the most recognizable tracks in the history of the go-go genre. The song, which Brown and his Soul Searchers released in 1979, topped Billboard's R&B chart for nearly a month and peaked at No. 34 on the mainstream Hot 100 chart. And even if go-go does not have much renown beyond Washington, "Bustin' Loose" got a bit of contemporary attention when Nelly sampled it for the hooks in his 2002 hit "Hot in Herre."

Whatever the reason behind the dismissal of "Bustin' Loose," the Nationals may have a tough time turning "Bang Bang" into a fan favorite. While Brown's song was loud even over the din of high-fiving crowds after a Nationals four-bagger thanks to its soaring horn section, "Bang Bang" is barely audible, with only a few thumps of its bass line washing over the stadium during last Friday's game, which featured home runs by Harper and Danny Espinosa.

"I’m so accustomed to hearing ["Bustin' Loose"] that when it didn’t show up, I was like, 'Huh?'" says Vavrick. "It’s got a good hook to it. People react to it. You’re on your feet, you’re standing, you're clapping. It makes you want to dance. You certainly don’t want to with this Bang Bang song."

And even if the Nationals want to stress their regionalism, it wouldn't hurt to hold on to a few city totems, says Vavrick: "This is a DC team and it needs some DC traditions, and I think that’s the best one of the bunch."

Posted at 04:20 PM/ET, 04/20/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
A night at the ballpark for a family of four, including beer and hot dogs, costs $232.08. By Benjamin Freed
Photograph by Flickr user Amul Madan.

The Nationals' new season is only three games old, and even though the opening series against the New York Mets was a disappointment, one thing the team did not lack for was fans. Even on a wet, chilly Wednesday, Nationals Park still managed to be 63 percent full.

That's good for the team, and not just in terms of morale. Nationals home games are the seventh-most expensive team in Major League Baseball for a family of four to attend, according to the Team Marketing Report, an annual guide to the costs of fandom across professional sports. An average night at the ballpark—measured as four tickets, two beers, four soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, and two adjustable caps—costs $232.08. The MLB average, by comparison is $211.68.

Chart via District, Measured.

District, Measured, a blog by the office of DC Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWitt, analyzed the costs of each component. While the Nationals are in the middle of the pack for beer and hot dogs and the cheap end for parking, their average ticket cost of $36.02 is the fifth-highest in all of baseball, trailing only the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, and Phillies. The league average is $28.94.

But Nationals fans might be used to the current sting at the gate—ticket prices in Washington only increased 2.2 percent over 2014, compared to a 3.3 percent league-wide increase. (The Kansas City Royals, no doubt bouyed by a run to last year's World Series, mugged their fans the most with a 20.3 percent hike.) But even at No. 5 on the ticket-price chart, the Nationals are closer to the bottom-scraping Cincinnati Reds than they are to the Red Sox.

Chart via District, Measured.

Other components of the clinically defined family outing are a bit more elastic, though, especially beer. While Team Marketing Report quotes the Nationals' beer price as $6.50, putting them in a three-way tie for ninth-highest, that figure refers to a small domestic draft. Most Nationals Park beer offerings, from full-pint pours to premium offerings like the local brews at the District Draft stations, go for more than $9. The report also only factors in the cheapest souvenir cap available, usually a flimsy adjustable thing. A fitted New Era cap like those worn by the players on the field will set you back $34.99 before tax.

Still, it might not be that bad that the Nationals are in the top tier of fan expenses. Opening-week jitters aside, the Nationals are safe bets to go far this season. The top two teams—the Red Sox and the Yankees, both of whom soak their fans for more than $300 a family outing—are in a race to the bottom of the American League East. Just wait until the Nationals actually get to the World Series for them to pull a move like the Kansas City Royals.

Posted at 04:30 PM/ET, 04/10/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()