The protective plastic lining the lockers had been rolled up to the ceiling and the champagne had been quickly carted down to the visitor’s clubhouse. The cheap blue carpet that had been taped down to protect the floor still remained, and the players who sat at their lockers tried their best not to look at it.
It was a somber atmosphere, and there wasn’t much they wanted to discuss on Friday night. But not one Nats player I approached after Friday’s Game 5 defeat declined the opportunity to talk about the fans.
“I’m sure it’s just as tough for them as it is for us right now,” said Ryan Mattheus, in the whisper-quiet clubhouse. “They were great. They were great all year.”
Craig Stammen agreed from a few lockers over.
“They were as good as it gets,” he said.
“Well, I think they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Strasburg told me, when I asked about such sentiments. “I think if you build, it they will come, and baseball is still relatively new to the area. We drew a lot of fans this year and it’s going to be electric for many years to come.”
Mattheus also took exception to the idea that D.C. fans aren’t top notch.
“They showed us the opposite,” he said. “This is a great sports town.”
The praise for the fans went on and on, and few people were prouder of the unrivaled support than Mike Rizzo.
“Oh, the fans were outstanding,” the general manager said, showing some excitement in an otherwise somber post-loss conversation. “They were terrific to the last pitch. It’s a growing fanbase, and I think it’s going to be one of the better fanbases in all of baseball.”
The idea of “there’s always next year” is usually an empty condolence, offered up when there’s nothing more appropriate to say. But for these guys, it’s a promise.
“I think we showed the fans around here what good baseball is, and that D.C. can turn into a baseball town,” said Mattheus with a smile. “I hope they’re excited about next year, too. This is going to be a good team for a long time.”
The concept of D.C. becoming a “baseball town” was not lost on Adam LaRoche, either.
“They’ve come a long way with this team,” LaRoche said of Nats fans. “This year showed what kind of a baseball town this can be. And when you put a great team out there, it was fun to see.
“You look up there and it’s 45,000 deep, everyone screaming from the first inning on,” he continued. “That’s not your average fans. They’re not coming just for something to do. There are people skipping work, kids skipping school to come see the Nationals play.”
For these players, at least the ones I spoke to, this season wasn’t just a matter of one good season. It’s the start of something better for a city that needs a baseball team they can feel good about.
“I think the culture has changed here,” said Strasburg. “Obviously it didn’t work out this year, but going into next year we’re hungry. And this is only going to fuel the fire.”