Given how long it’s been since the Redskins were anywhere near the Super Bowl, it’s safe to assume that most of you reading this have never experienced the exhilaration aroused when the Washington region unites around a sports team’s success. Trust me — it’s exquisite. Strangers in line at the grocery store are eager to discuss the latest game. New friendships form and old ones solidify as people head to the stadium together or gather around the big-screen TV.
It’s likely to happen again in just a few weeks, but over baseball rather than football. The Washington Nationals, boasting the major leagues’ best win-loss record, are practically certain to make the playoffs. In their eighth season since moving here from Montreal, the team can realistically envisage going to the World Series.
If the Washington area comes together to celebrate the Nats’ triumphs as it did when the Redskins won three Super Bowls between 1983 to 1992, then it would do more than anything I can imagine to strengthen our region’s pride and identity.
It also would help us kill three slanders frequently leveled against the Washington area:
■We care only about football.
■We are generally a lousy sports town.
■We are important only because the president lives here.
That’s a lot of negative reputation to overcome, but the Nats could do it. Not only are they good this year, but they also are built around a core of young stars signed to long-term contracts who could keep the team competitive for years to come.
“D.C. can be a bandwagon town. We like winners, we like front-runners. It takes some time for people to see that these guys are real, but I think they’re going to see it,” said Erik Moses, senior vice president and managing director of Events DC’s sports and entertainment division.
Moreover, even though most sports experts scoff at such heresy, I think the Nationals could even supplant the Redskins as the region’s most revered team. They’d have to win a World Series, and the Redskins would have to stay mired in mediocrity (which no right-thinking person desires).
A top Nats executive didn’t shy away from challenging Redskin predominance. While Chief Operating Officer Andy Feffer said diplomatically that, of course, he wants all local teams to succeed, he stressed that the Nats are on top in our market — even as the Redskins are introducing promising new quarterback Robert Griffin III.
“The Nationals and baseball are the hottest thing in Washington right now. All you have to do is turn on local radio,” Feffer said. “We are the team in Washington that people are talking about.”
The Nationals’ average attendance is up 28 percent from last year, to just over 30,000 per game. Sales of red caps, jerseys and other merchandise are up 80 percent.
Now, before you fans of the Capitals, D.C. United and other fine local teams start e-mailing me with outraged complaints, let me acknowledge that your successes have also helped unite the region and raised Washington’s standing as a sports-friendly town.
But let’s be realistic. To paraphrase George Orwell, some sports are more equal than others. Football and baseball appeal more widely than hockey and soccer. In basketball, the Wizards are (we hope) rebuilding.
The Nationals must overcome one big challenge before they can truly unite the region: Like the rest of Major League Baseball, they need to attract more African American fans.
Look at a crowd in Nationals Park — it doesn’t reflect the region’s diversity as a Redskins crowd does. This is a long-standing problem for baseball, partly explained by a decline in the number of professional black players. African Americans used to account for about 30 percent of major leaguers, but now their share is below 10 percent.
To encourage interest in the sport across the city, the Nationals and the District government plan to break ground early next year on a Youth Baseball Academy east of the Anacostia River.
“It’s something we do in the marketplace to ensure we bring all demographics to the park,” Feffer said.
More than anything, the Nats’ success adds critical depth to the Washington sports scene. It’s now reasonable to imagine that two or more of our marquee professional teams could go deep into the playoffs in a given year.
If that happened, then enthusiasm for one team could help reinforce that of another, giving D.C. fans a stronger multi-sport identity. That’s true of other cities with consistent winners in different sports, such as New York and Boston.
After so many barren years, it would be Washington sports nirvana.
For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney .