To the list of momentous firsts accomplished during this crazy joyride of a Nationals season — first winning record, first playoff berth, first division title, first injection of Natitude — add this: for the first time, Teddy Roosevelt won the fourth-inning Presidents Race. Yes, after more than 500 attempts since the popular race debuted at RFK Stadium in the summer of 2006, the giant-headed mascot depicting the 26th President finally crossed the finish line first.
The moment came Wednesday afternoon, during the regular-season finale against Washington’s longtime nemesis, the Philadelphia Phillies.
Wearing a red headband and bright gold shoes modeled after those made famous by world’s fastest man Usain Bolt, Teddy got off to a slow start, trailing Abe, then Jefferson, then Washington.
But a green blob intended to resemble the Phillie Phanatic felled the three leaders in the right field corner, and Roosevelt strolled home by himself as the crowd roared and began chanting his name (really).
He then ripped off his usual jersey, revealing a red “Natitude” t-shirt, and soaked in the cheers.
“He did it. He finally did it. I can’t believe he won,” said vendor Wayne Shorter, who turned 46 on this momentous day.
“Relief, excitement,” gushed Scott Ableman, the 48-year-old marketing executive behind the Let Teddy Win web site. “When the Phillie Phanatic showed up, I knew he was gonna win. There was no way they would let the Phillie Phanatic take out Teddy Roosevelt.”
As grown women hugged (really) and fans exulted, the bottom of the fourth began. Face of the franchise Ryan Zimmerman homered, and the next two batters doubled. Nats Park was seized with ecstasy.
“See what happens when Teddy wins!” Ableman said.
It was a fitting end to a season that began amid much talk of taking back the park from the Philadelphia infidels, of spreading Natitude — the team’s corny but lovable new slogan — throughout D.C.
“Forget you, Philly,” Nats COO Andy Feffer said then, before the season had even started. “This is our park, this is our town, these are our fans, and it’s our time right now.”
Feffer, like most Nats fans, thought it was time for Washington to contend for a playoff berth. But even he could not have imagined what came next, the team soaring past any preseason projections, leading the NL East since late May, going into the final day of the season with a chance to clinch baseball’s best record. They’re already guaranteed the biggest year-to-year increase in local TV ratings of any MLB franchise, and attendance figures have also spiked.
So after Monday’s beer-and-champagne soaked celebration of a division crown, only one thing remained.
“Teddy’s still up for surprises guys,” ace Gio Gonzalez told ABC News during the celebration. “Don’t count him out yet.”
Indeed, the groundwork had been laid for a possible Roosevelt win weeks ago. While there had been several false alarms in past seasons, the momentum this time was inescapable, especially after ESPN aired a long piece in mid-September narrated by Ken Burns and detailing Roosevelt’s many losses.
“I’ve been paying a LOT of attention to the fact that one of the truly great presidents in history has NEVER won a race,” Senator John McCain deadpanned in the segment. “I am outraged.”
The next day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney chimed in, telling reporters he agreed the situation was “an outrage,” and adding “I’m comfortable saying that my boss agrees with Senator McCain.”
After that, the floodgates opened: Teddy’s losing streak made the front page of the Wall Street Journal and attracted an ABC World News Tonight crew, was discussed on Politico and the Huffington Post, merited an AP story and untold blog posts and water cooler discussions.
The team fanned the flames by announcing the final three home games would be dubbed the “Teddy in 2012″ series, with daily Teddy-themed giveaways and video messages featuring Teddy training with the Army at Fort McNair, Teddy talking to pro wrestler John Cena and Teddy getting motivation from McCain, who filmed his bit with the mascot two weekends ago.
The mascot came close on Monday and Tuesday, eliciting massive boos from the home crowds when other presidents narrowly beat him to the finish line. And the bit also earned some out-of-town jeers; Philadelphia Daily News columnist David Murphy wrote that “it was not immediately clear which was greater: the dramatic tension that surrounded the Nationals’ unresolved quest to clinch the NL East, or that which surrounded a foam Teddy Roosevelt’s quest to clinch his first-ever victory.”
There remained some internal debate among Nats front-office members about whether Wednesday should be the day, or whether the gimmick should be extended into the postseason or beyond. Wednesday morning, that debate ended. And so the team can now proceed into this weekend’s playoffs absent the distraction of a mascot race, with one final victory checked off the list.
Fans have long campaigned for Teddy to break through, wearing “Let Teddy Win” and “Abe Cheated” gear. And even players got involved; quirky newcomer Jayson Werth tried to forcibly detain Teddy’s competitors (Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington) last season, and has repeatedly told reporters that Teddy’s losing streak was not befitting of an up-and-coming team.
“Needs to happen, needs to happen,” closer Drew Storen had said earlier this summer. “Needs to happen soon. Teddy’s the man. He’s a hero and needs to be rewarded with a victory.”
More on Teddy’s win