October 5, 2012

Teddy, the Washington Nationals’ hapless racing president, was built to be loved. He’s a roly-poly, avuncular, clumsy, stuffed-bear-cute caricature of President Theodore Roosevelt, his goofy smile a welcome relief from the sterner miens of the other racing presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

Teddy was also built to lose. He’s Charlie Brown having the football pulled away from him at the last moment. He’s the Chicago Cubs. He’s Harold Stassen and Michael Dukakis — lovable losers all, characters with integrity and smarts, symbols of the nagging feeling Americans have that winning is wonderful but not quite everything.

This past week, heady over their creation of that rarest of Washington specimens, a winning sports franchise, Nationals management tore up the racing presidents’ bible and let the impossible happen. In the middle of the fourth inning of the last game of the regular season, the Nats did what thousands of T-shirts and signs have begged them to do for more than six years: They let Teddy win.

In doing so, the Nationals committed a colossal marketing blunder and demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between baseball and football — and a tragic misreading of what it means to be American.

The franchise had perhaps the best gimmick going in any stadium in the country. And in one quick move for publicity and short-term fan satisfaction, they shot the shtick in the head. Teddy could run thousands more races, but never again will he embody the frustrations and hopes of millions of Americans who were never the first to be picked for a team, who know deep down that some good people never win what they most desire.

The presidents now become just one more collection of mascots racing around the warning track, no different from Pittsburgh’s pierogies, Milwaukee’s sausages, Miami’s sea creatures, or the hot dogs in Cleveland and Kansas City.

Fans did their part, rooting for Teddy just as legions of “Peanuts” lovers yearned for Charlie Brown finally to make contact with the football. But Charles M. Schulz was wise enough to know his obligation to his character. “Oh, no!” Schulz once said. “Definitely not! I couldn’t have Charlie Brown kick that football; that would be a terrible disservice to him after nearly half a century.”

Those of us who dreaded the day when Teddy might win worried that such an extreme contradiction of the character’s personality — what actors call a character’s spine — could cast a curse on the Nats. This has happened before in baseball, and such curses can last a century or more. With the team’s first playoff game Sunday, this is an awful time to mess with tradition. Of course, the Nationals started hitting with gusto right after Teddy’s victory, so perhaps we have escaped the wrath of the baseball gods.

Still, the very fact that fans were having this debate shows that tradition, superstition and the mystical play a more central role in baseball than in other American sports.

Football is our sport of innovation and entrepreneurial zest. Baseball represents the other side of the American spirit — our stick-to-itiveness and stubborn belief in ourselves and our destiny. Football is shiny new helmets; baseball is the pitcher wearing the same sweat-stained cap every day till he gets bombed. In football, a new racing president each year would be exciting. In baseball, Teddy is forever, and Teddy always loses.

The Nats have toyed with the workings of time. In baseball, the only major sport without a clock, time is meant to be open-ended, expansive. Baseball fans are notoriously change-averse. We admire players who dress as if it were still 1895. We worship old, decrepit stadiums such as Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

It’s hard enough to establish traditions with a new franchise. Remember how many Washington fans wanted our new team to be named the Senators or Grays? “Nationals” was at least a throwback name, used by a D.C. team of the 19th century.

The beauty of our two great sports passions is that they represent both sides of what it means to be American — the gridiron and the diamond, the new and the true, the lunge for the extra yard and the practiced precision of the double play. Teddy, ever cheerful even in eternal frustration, had a role to play — and now he’s nothing.

The Nationals promise another surprise next season, perhaps a new president to replace Teddy. Such changes should never be made so cavalierly. But if that’s what’s happening, we can at least greet the new guy with this plea: May he never win.

marcfisher@washpost.com

Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post.

Read more from Outlook:

Seriously, Nats: It’s time for Teddy to win

Friend us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.