Over the past week, much has been made about what type of sports town Washington can claim to be. Despite the fact that those arguments are completely subjective and the dismissive notion of DC as a bad sports town is about as current as an Apple II, former Washington Post columnist Mike Wilbon decided to insult the city that made him rich and famous.
Wilbon, now host with Tony Kornheiser of ESPN’s popular sports talk show Pardon the Interruption, wrote that Washington is a “terrible” sports town. Not a single metric was given, but Wilbon asserted that the District ranks below other cities in terms of passion and patronage of professional sports teams.
Of course, Wilbon leaned on his old Chicago crutch, and also said New York and Philadelphia were better sports cities than DC. Those three cities obviously have more tradition with their teams, and I don’t think many people would confuse the Nats history for the Yankees.
What doesn’t make sense is why Wilbon felt the need to belittle DC. Why insult the fans that read your columns for 20 years?
DC may not be the best sports town, but it is far from the worst. Fans in this town have been supporting generally bad teams for decades, and in solid numbers. When the town delivers a winner, fans show up in droves.
Mike Wilbon was once a good reporter, later a good columnist. He never had the same cachet or wit as Kornheiser, but few did. He still put out a good column that sports fan across Washington read and enjoyed.
Then he decided he wanted to go bigger.
To do so, he decided it would be a smart path to insult the very people that gave him the opportunity. The first, and for many the last, shot Wilbon took came in his infamous, insensitive column after the murder of Sean Taylor. The former Redskins safety was murdered in his own home. Wilbon callously said he found it unsurprising.
“I wasn’t surprised in the least when I heard the news Monday morning that Sean Taylor had been shot in his home by an intruder,” Wilbon wrote in November 2007. “Angry? Yes. Surprised? Not even a little.”
Feedback to that column was intense. Many Redskins fans, and others who just couldn’t believe the arrogance Wilbon displayed, began to openly denounce Wilbon. But he didn’t care. He stood by the ugly comments, acting as if he were selflessly taking the PR hit to advance some nonexistent crusade.
This time, after his broad insult to the entire Washington area, Wilbon backtracked. He even claimed that he, an ESPN employee, was misquoted by ESPN Magazine. I doubt it. On TV and radio, Wilbon tends to get excited and spout preposterous exaggerations. That was probably the case with his initial claims toward DC sports fandom.
He may not have meant Washington was a terrible sports town, but I would certainly wager that he said it.
It’s a movie we’ve seen before. Columnist does well locally, then regionally. Over time he gains more fame, goes national. Only to keep the same status, more and more incendiary commentary is required. Half of it is baseless, but who cares? He’s moving the needle.
There was a time I thought Mike Wilbon was above moving the needle. His inaccurate and petty invective aimed at Washington proves that is no longer the case.
In the end, who cares? We are Washington sports fans, and we know Wilbon is wrong. The guy is out of touch and, by most accounts, out of the area.
This weekend, we get to prove it. Sunday could be an incredible sports day for Washingtonians. The day kicks off with the Redskins hosting the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. With schedule makers clearly looking out for us, the Nats’ first playoff game will start right as the Skins game is scheduled to end.
Clear your calendar. Go Halloween shopping another day.
It’s tough to make a prediction, or really even offer a preview for the Nationals playoff series, because it is still unclear who the team will play. We know it will be either the Atlanta Braves or the St. Louis Cardinals. Those two teams will square off tonight, and the winner faces the Nats.
Both the Cards and the Braves are impressive. Both have good starting pitching and strong hitters. And you know what? The Nats have a winning record against both teams this season. Against the Braves, the Nats took 10 out of 18; against the Cards, 4 out of 7.
Though the numbers are tight, regular season records can be a good barometer for how talent stacks up from one team to another. But playoff baseball accelerates pressure on players. How the young Nats players respond will be the key.
The Cardinals are the defending World Series champions. Atlanta seems to make the playoffs every year (last year being a notable exception with their late-season collapse). The Nats are certainly capable of beating either, but this young team will have to play some of its best baseball.
Davey Johnson has been there. He has won World Series rings as a player and a manager. Jayson Werth has been there too, winning a World Series title when he played for the Phillies. Beyond that, the playoff experience is slim.
This year, the Nats have responded to every punch thrown their way. I would expect nothing less now.
Gio Gonzalez, a Cy Young award candidate and the winner of 21 games, will start game one. The Nats, and their fans, will expect a win with their ace on the mound.
Sometimes experience is a good thing, providing context to analyze the situation. Sometimes experience leaves you out of touch, or worse. Just ask Mike Wilbon. For the Nats, experience will come. They’ve already won 98 games this year—what’s 11 more?
Find JP Finlay on Twitter @jpfinlay.