In 2016, when the Washington Nationals were playing the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round of the National League Division Series, Juliet Macur suggested in a New York Times column that D.C., a longtime football town, was beginning “to look an awful lot like an up-and-coming baseball town.”
She asked what I thought, since I had written a history of baseball in Washington, and I replied, “Sure, I think baseball could someday become football’s equal here. But I don’t see it ever superseding football. Well, maybe in 50 years.”
Turns out I was off by 47 years.
Because it’s now clear to me that Washington has turned into a full-throttle baseball town, and the Nats have eclipsed the Washington Redskins in the hearts of Washingtonians. It’s not just that this will be the Nats’ first World Series appearance in franchise history, and the city’s first since 1933. An equally important factor is all the negative energy from the football club — the poor product on the field, the empty seats in the stadium, the controversy over the team name and the unpopularity of owner Daniel Snyder.
Meanwhile, anyone who attended either of the Nats’ two National League Championship Series home victories over the St. Louis Cardinals last week could feel that the energy level had been ramped up to 11 at Nationals Park. The stadium convulsed in a way that it rarely, if ever, had before. Derrick Goold, the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, offered a spot-on outsider’s perspective during Game 3, the first NLCS game ever played here, tweeting “For a first-timer in the #NLCS, #Nationals Park is bouncing. Big crowd. Into the event. Great atmosphere. Not sure if that translates on TV, so kudos to the crowd and the whole experience they’re creating here in D.C. Well done.”
When baseball returned here in 2005, the idea that the sport would wrest the top spot from football in Washington was implausible. For one thing, the city had no baseball for 33 years, so an entire generation of fans grew up without a local team to root for. And when the Expos limped here from Montreal, a castoff franchise owned by Major League Baseball, they didn’t have much of a foundation. The Nats finished last in five of their first six seasons and strung together back-to-back seasons of more than 100 losses.
Even had they started off strong, the Nats would have been handicapped against a proud D.C. football tradition. Shortly after the second incarnation of the Washington Senators left town in 1971, leaving the city with no Major League Baseball, the Redskins became an NFL powerhouse. Under coach George Allen, they made several playoff appearances, including one that led to an NFC championship, in the early and mid-70s. Then over a decade-long stretch culminating with a Super Bowl championship in 1992, the team appeared in four Super Bowls, winning three of them, with Joe Gibbs as coach.
The era produced legends such as Joe Theismann, John Riggins, Sonny Jurgensen, Art Monk and Darrell Green. Games at RFK Stadium were community civic events, with fans jumping up and down to make the seats rock during the Redskins’ heyday.
But those days are long gone. The Redskins, 1-6, are headed to their third straight losing season and haven’t played in a Super Bowl since their 1992 championship. And fans are staying away: Last season, Redskins attendance dropped a whopping 19 percent from the previous year, the worst decline in the NFL. In June 2018, the team announced that a season ticket waiting list it had once claimed ran to 200,000 people actually no longer existed.
The Nats’ attendance, while down this year compared with last — with the team’s slow start, the failure to make the playoffs last year and the loss of box-office draw Bryce Harper probably factors — is up nearly 24 percent since 2010.
This was a baseball town once before, after all. The Redskins didn’t arrive here from Boston until 1937, around the time the original Washington Senators began their long descent into, and then beyond, mediocrity. Before then, the Senators ruled the District.
In June 1924, after the Senators (also known as the Nationals) swept a four-game series against the defending World Series champion New York Yankees to take over first place in the American League, fans jammed into Union Station to welcome the victorious team back home. Later that season, as the Senators marched to their first pennant, the old Washington Evening Star declared, using the old two-word spelling for the name of the sport, “Base ball in the National Capital no longer is a national game. It is a disease, a flaming epidemic, and if something doesn’t happen soon to ease the strain on the faithful fans, half the population of the District of Columbia will be dead of heart failure.”
Nats fans can identify with that sentiment.
When the Senators clinched the pennant that year, 100,000 people jammed Pennsylvania Avenue for a celebratory parade. At the Ellipse, President Calvin Coolidge welcomed the team and joked about the baseball mania that was sweeping the city: “When the entire population reached the point of requiring the game to be described play-by-play, I began to doubt whether the highest efficiency was being promoted.”
The Senators went on to play the New York Giants in the World Series, and fans were so riled up that for the road games at the Polo Grounds, they would follow the action on mechanical scoreboards in Washington or watch U.S. Marines pantomime the games at the Senators’ home ballpark, Griffith Stadium, based on wire transmissions from New York.
The Senators went on to beat the Giants to claim the city’s only World Series title. That was the beginning of a great decade in Washington baseball. The team won pennants again in 1925 and 1933, although they lost the World Series both times.
Nearly a century later, the same fervor is back. On Tuesday night, Nats fans also will be at their home ballpark in the postseason to follow the team on the road — this time by watching a TV broadcast on the stadium scoreboard. A few thousand die-hards already attended a watch party at Nationals Park to see the team defeat the Dodgers in the fifth and decisive game of this year’s NLDS, leading to an explosive celebration, when complete strangers hugged each other.
That was just the beginning of the party. As The Washington Post’s Scott Allen reported, after the Nats won the pennant last week, the pandemonium included two men lifting up their T-shirts to bump bellies on the left field concourse to celebrate. “Come on, who knows when this will happen again?” one of them asked.
The next day, I saw a woman schlepping a giant Nats flag onto a Metrobus — the kind of flag you might see Screech, the team mascot, waving at a game. She told me she bought it at Walmart and brought it to the office, where people were excited to see it.
Will Washington’s pennant this year be the start of a run like the Senators had in the 1920s? We won’t know until next season.
Regardless, by bringing the World Series to this city for the first time in 86 years, the Nats have linked themselves to an era when Washington was unquestionably a baseball town. And in the process, they’ve helped make it one once again.