News & Politics

What the Losses to the Yankees Mean for the Nats

The Nats’ squandered opportunity to showcase themselves begs the question: Is Washington a great sports town, or just a great Redskins town?

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
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
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
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.