The Washington Nationals will embark on their third post-season in six years on Friday when they take the field against the Los Angeles Dodgers. While any baseball playoff berth should be greeted with hope, Washington sports fans are a snake-bitten bunch: Prodigy quarterbacks broken. League-leading hockey squads out-skated by the Pittsburgh Penguins. And recently, late-inning leads coughed up.
It’s been nearly 25 years since one of this city’s major franchises win their respective league’s title. Heck, in that quarter-century span, the biggest championship won in Washington was probably at WWE’s “Battleground” in June, when Dean Ambrose beat Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns in a three-way match at the Verizon Center.
Baseball playoffs offer a fresh opportunity to shake our local misfortune. But the odds are not with Washington. The number-crunchers at FiveThirtyEight give the Nationals just an 8 percent chance of winning the World Series, compared to 15 percent for the Dodgers and 26 percent for the talent-stacked Chicago Cubs. Of 32 baseball analysts at ESPN, only one—Jim Caple—thinks the Nationals will make it all the way. In other words, the baseball know-it-alls are are telling us not to move around our cash for those second-round and World Series tickets.
Still, those predictions are rooted in statistics and historical head-to-head records between teams. Real fans know the Nationals’ bad luck may come from something more metaphysical. What if, like Cubs fans’ attributing their century-plus title drought to a goat, the Nationals could be jinxed by something that can’t be explained away by poor on-field performance? Here are four possible suspects:
For the first eight years of their time in Washington, the Nationals made it a point to have Teddy Roosevelt never win one of fourth-inning Presidents’ Races. But in the closing days of the 2012 regular season, Teddy finally won. He won the next day, too. And the day after that, and so on right into the playoffs until even fans who bought into the faux elation of a mascot version of the 26th President finally winning a scripted foot race were sick of it. Teddy won the night Drew Storen blew a two-run lead to the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2014, the race results during the regular season were fairly even, but come playoffs, it was all Teddy again. Remember that 18-inning game? Teddy won twice that night. If Teddy wins this weekend, clutch your rosaries.
2. Inconsistent use of “Bustin’ Loose”
Chuck Brown’s classic go-go anthem was the Nationals’ default home-run-celebration song until early 2015, when it was surreptitiously replaced by “Bang Bang,” a recent and forgettable single by Ariana Grande and Jessie J. The Nationals brought “Bustin’ Loose” back after some media prodding, but even today, the song’s use following home runs seems haphazard. Sometimes it’s played after a home run; other times, such as after a Bryce Harper grand slam in April, it was not. Last year, the Nationals front office claimed it pulled “Bustin’ Loose” because fans said “they would like to hear a broader genre of songs incorporated into our game day experience.” Last season also ended with the Nationals missing the playoffs and Harper in a chokehold from then-closer Jonathan Papelbon. A diverse playlist is great, but consider this: Home runs are fun. “Bustin’ Loose” is fun. No one will mind if “Bustin’ Loose” follows every Nationals home run.
3. NBC News
Before games, the Nationals often give a microphone to a fan in the first few rows behind home plate and have that person yell “Play ball!” to start the game. Often, it’s some kid. Fine, whatever, occasionally cute. But once in a while, they find a notable name. For the final game of the 2012 National League Division Series, David Gregory, then the host of Meet the Press, did the honors. At the 2014 game that would go on to stretch for 18 innings, it was Gregory’s successor, Chuck Todd. See a pattern? If anyone who hosts a show on NBC or MSNBC gets within a Metro stop of Nationals Park, it’s time to worry.
4. Bad fans
Or maybe it’s just us. It’s fun to bash Nationals fans as a bunch of baseball naïfs or transient hangers-on who will forget about the team as soon as they move back to their hometowns. Nationals fans are frequently called out for a litany of offenses: Not applauding enough. Doing calculus homework. Standing, talking on mobile phones, and doing the wave. Reading a Kindle. Leaving games early. Okay, some of this is pretty bad, especially the wave. But at least we don’t puke on kids! Still, there’s a lot of truth in that charge about bailing on games before they’re done. Again, we return to 2014’s 18-inning debacle. It was a cold, windy night; the Nats blew a lead; Teddy won twice; and the stadium concessions stands ran out of everything. Objectively, that game sucked. But maybe our fortunes would have been different if one-third of the stadium hadn’t emptied out before the end. Better fandom can still be developed. Hell, this magazine published a whole guide to it back in May. And just remember, in the playoffs, you stay for every, last, stinking inning.