September 22, 2012

GIVEN THE National Hockey League’s shutdown, the Wizards’ travails and the uncertainties that come with a rookie quarterback, there isn’t much Washington sports fans can count on. But one thing is certain: We have a baseball team in the playoffs.

There are two parts of that last sentence that deserve a moment’s reflection, now that the Nationals have earned at least a wild-card spot for the postseason. Getting to the playoffs is a remarkable accomplishment for a team with a dismal recent history. A franchise doesn’t go, “in just three seasons, from fundamentally awful to fanatically focused on details,” as columnist Thomas Boswell put it in Friday’s Post, by luck or accident. The progression starts with owners — in this case, 86-year-old Ted Lerner — who hire high-quality general managers (Mike Rizzo) and managers (Davey Johnson) and then let those professionals do their jobs. It also takes owners willing to invest for the long run. The team’s decision to sit pitcher Stephen Strasburg before the playoffs begin to protect his career, no matter how painful a decision for him and for fans, is a reflection of that long-term thinking.

But the first part of the sentence in question — we have a baseball team — didn’t happen by accident, either. Washington lost its last team in 1971, and many people — leaders and fans alike — put huge effort in the ensuing decades into getting one back. In the end, it took hard work and gutsy politics from civic leaders like then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams; Linda W. Cropp, then chair of the D.C. Council; and council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). Backing public funds for a new baseball stadium wasn’t an obvious call in a city with so many needs, but in the end these leaders were able to make a case that the stadium would help an entire city, fans and non-fans alike.

Getting into the playoffs doesn’t automatically prove their argument correct. Slowed by recession, development in the stadium area has proceeded with less alacrity than advocates hoped. But it seems pretty clear now that baseball will be good for Washington. Crowds are growing, the riverfront is being spruced up, and the city is attracting Marylanders and Virginians who might otherwise never come to town. It’s not fanciful to imagine that neighborhoods south of the Capitol will be as transformed in a few years as the blocks around Verizon Center.

It’s not essential to such progress for the Nats now to clinch the division title and go deep into the playoffs. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt.