In the long history of organized sports, no team or individual at the collegiate or professional level has ever lost 500 times in a row.
Not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who lost 26 consecutive games from 1976 to 1977, a National Football League record. Not the Long Island University women’s basketball team, which dropped 58 straight to set an NCAA Division I record in the 1980s. Not the Sydney University rugby league team (42 successive losses from 1934 to 1936), the City College of New York lacrosse team (92 in a row, ending in 1988), tennis pro Vincent Spadea (a record 21 straight losing matches in 1999-2000) or pitcher Anthony Young (an all-time worst 27 straight starts without a win for the 1992-93 New York Mets).
In fact, the only contender to come remotely close was the Caltech men’s basketball team (possible slogan: “not recruited for our height”), which lost 310 consecutive NCAA Division III conference games over 26 years, before rallying to beat Occidental College 46-45 in February 2011.
But if one current streak continues, history of the wrong kind will be made midway through the fourth inning at Nationals Park on Aug. 18, when the world will witness perhaps the first competitor in a professional sports arena to lose for the 500th consecutive time. It’s not exactly how you want to get on “SportsCenter” — but that’s the fate that awaits “Racing President” Teddy Roosevelt if nothing is done to propel him to victory when the Nationals return home from a 10-gameroad trip.
As a season-ticket holder since the day the team moved from Montreal to Washington in 2005, I can’t for the life of me understand why the first-place Nationals still want their most popular on-field attraction — beyond the team, of course — to personify losing. Maybe the streak fit when the Nats were losing 100 games a season, as they did in 2008 and 2009. But for a winning team with the best young talent in baseball, the streak feels as outdated as the Orioles fans who still shout “O!” during the national anthem at Nats games.
At Nationals Park, they call it “the main event.” Halfway through the fourth inning of every home game, four giant-headed mascots — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — are shown “racing” through the District on the video scoreboard. A door in center field opens, and the contest turns live, with the Racing Presidents usually dashing along the right field wall, turning at the corner and sprinting to a finish line behind first base.
It’s not just that Teddy has lost every single race since the competition began in 2006 — 496 straight after Friday’s doubleheader, according to the official record lovingly kept on a fan blog, Let Teddy Win. The magic is in how he usually loses.
Teddy has been tripped and tackled. He’s pulled a hamstring. He’s been attacked by a panther. He’s slipped on banana peels, run the wrong way and been disqualified for riding a scooter, a Segway, a golf cart, a zip line and a rickshaw. Most often, he’s been distracted at the last minute — by popsicles,signs in the stands, Mother’s Day flowers, a kangaroo, a rally penguin, a racing monkey, a giant panda, a rogue lobster, a juggling clown, Miss Iowa and even the space shuttle Discovery.
Sure, there have been occasional moments of grace, like the smackdown Teddy delivered to the Baltimore Oriole Bird, who had tripped him, in 2008, or the memorable night against Milwaukee in 2010 when Teddy, lying in wait with a knife and fork, took down five racing sausages, allowing Abe to race to victory.
But bad luck has even traveled with him. When the presidents were loaned out to a New York Islanders hockey game on Presidents’ Day this year, Teddy got checked into the boards by George when he was about to cross the blue line. At baseball’s All-Star Game in Kansas City, Mo., last month, Teddy was the anchor leg for one of two teams in a race of mascots. With a huge lead, Teddy was an inch from victory when he suddenly stopped, turned and cold-cocked the Brewers’ racing Bratwurst, who then stumbled to victory.
What did our 26th president do to deserve this? After all, TR was the most athletic of our presidents. When cavalry officers complained about having to ride 25 miles a day for training, Roosevelt — at age 51 — jumped on his horse and rode 100 miles in one day to quiet them. He was a skilled boxer and a black belt in jujitsu. He kept a lion and a bear as pets at the White House. He not only survived an assassination attempt in 1912 but went on to deliver his speech — with the bullet still in him.
How does he keep losing to someone like Jefferson, whom history rarely recorded walking 100 yards, let alone running it?
It could be a sort of karma. After all, Roosevelt — all chest hair and Hemingway-like vigor — thought of baseball as a sport for wimps, famously calling it a “mollycoddle game.” During his eight years in the White House, he apparently never attended a single major league game, despite being the first president to be issued a lifetime pass by Major League Baseball.
Teddy’s streak is the disgrace that has launched a thousand quips, giving birth to a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, mugs, T-shirts, iPad covers, stadium blankets and even underwear.
But for a team that had little stability when it was new to Washington — as managers and players kept revolving — the Racing Presidents were a touchstone for fans, a tradition to root for, even if it meant turning our most heroic chief executive into a lovable loser.
Teddy’s defeats are so ingrained that the idea of him winning could be worrisome in a sport as superstitious as baseball. From Joe DiMaggio touching second base every time he ran from the outfield to the dugout to Jason Giambi wearing a gold thong under his uniform to break slumps to Wade Boggs eating a whole chicken before every game, baseball players don’t like to mess with fate. So now that the Nats are in first place in the National League East, wouldn’t Teddy jinx them if he stops losing?
“It’s exactly the opposite,” says blogger Scott Ableman, founder of Let Teddy Win. By a wide margin, he says, the many people he hears from “believe there is a curse — that the Nationals won’t win until Teddy wins.”
After all, Nats outfielder Jayson Werth didn’t seem worried about a jinx when he interfered with Abe, George and Tom in two separate races last year in an attempt to help Teddy win (in one, Jefferson won anyway; in the other, Teddy fell and couldn’t get up, so a dejected Werth sprinted to victory instead). “It’s bigger than me, man. It’s bigger than me,” Werth later said of Teddy’s losing streak.
While management won’t comment on Teddy’s streak, the Nationals just started a fate-testing promotion: Fans who put a deposit on a season-ticket plan for 2013 will receive “2012 postseason ticket purchase priority” — as bold an invitation to fate as ever there was one. Why not just chit-chat with the pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter, too?
Roosevelt himself would reject the idea of a curse. Once writing that “frontiersman are not, as a rule, apt to be very superstitious,” TR was an honorary member of the Thirteen Club, formed in the late 19th century to dispel the idea that the number 13 was unlucky. Roosevelt was such a nonbeliever in superstition that he purposely dedicated a county courthouse in New York on July 13, 1900 — a Friday.
It’s time to flip the script. For a team that routinely wins games in their last at-bat, the sight of Teddy losing at the last second no longer fits. While many believe that Teddy will win at last if the Nationals make the playoffs, who’s going to care about the “Teddy Finally Wins” headline if it comes at the same time the Nationals snag a postseason spot or win their first playoff game?
Here’s an idea: Instead of finding wildly creative ways for Teddy to lose, why not come up with stirring ways for him to win? Let him embody this Nationals team. Next Sunday, before his 500th race, have him come out with a new haircut — maybe that awesomely weird mullet-hawk that 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper wore in his debut.
Give him a new number — the number of wins necessary for the Nats to clinch their first playoff slot — and update it nightly.
Rather than letting him be a loser on Aug. 18, have him sprint from behind in the last 20 yards to win at the tape — and then find new and compelling ways for him to keep winning, like the team itself.
Will people care less about the Racing Presidents if Teddy finally wins? Not likely.
“They’re just pure Americana at this point, the thing most associated with this team,” Ableman says. “They’re also, by far, the most in-demand characters in town. They’re at the White House. They’re on parade floats. They’re at private events. And it’s not just Teddy. All of the presidents are local celebrities. That’s not going to change, whether Teddy wins or loses. But it’s time for him to win.”
Teddy winning wouldn’t just make sense for the 2012 Nats — it could even boost the national mood. In the middle of a divisive campaign season, who better to unite fans on both the left field and right field foul lines than a man who was both a privileged son of a wealthy business owner and a community activist; who was both a popular governor and a famous crusader against big corporations; who embraced both the National Rifle Association and higher wages for the 99 percent; who ran on a platform that spoke of both “battling for the Lord” and providing every American with health insurance; who was both educated at Harvard and practically reborn in Kenya on a post-presidency hunting safari?
Victory won’t change Teddy — after all, he couldn’t possibly have a bigger head.
It will take a leap of faith by team owners to believe that Teddy can personify a culture of winning. But when it comes to the Nationals, most of us have already taken that leap. Isn’t it time for the “main event” to be about winning, too?
Paul Orzulak, who was a foreign policy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is a founding partner of West Wing Writers, a Washington-based speechwriting and strategy firm. He has seen Teddy lose in person more than 150 times.