This is their time. History would be less surprised if all the Democrats and all the Republicans woke up one day, agreed on tax reform, solved the deficit, and danced through the streets in a group hug. But it is true: Although they lost Sunday’s game, giving them just three more chances to clinch the division title, the Nats nonetheless will play meaningful baseball games this October, the first time that could be said of any Washington major league team since 1933. And for the people who inhabit the capital’s power alleys, the feeling is one of ecstasy, anxiety, and a strange, well, powerlessness.
The first alert that things were a bit out of control landed via Twitter, on Aug. 16. Gerald Seib, the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief, tweeted the wonderful and awful news: “OK, Nats fans, time to start considering: Possible conflicts between NL postseason games and VP debate Oct. 11, and Prez debate Oct 22.”
In offices all over town, the reality of life with divided loyalties hit hard. At NBC News, “Meet the Press” host David Gregory felt it like a gut punch — might he really have to miss a Nats playoff game to watch Mitt Romney and Barack Obama trade one-liners?
“The tweet brought it home to me,” Gregory said. He’s been a season-ticket holder since the first season at RFK Stadium, in 2005. His children have grown up saturated in the hard lessons of losing.
He’d just assumed that “as long as their behavior is good enough to deserve going, we could finally see a postseason game,” he said. Except that a presidential debate is a must event for someone who covers politics for a living.
It’s even more of a must for the guy who has to moderate a debate. Bob Schieffer, host of “Face the Nation” on CBS, may find himself confronted with another kind of divided loyalty. Schieffer, who grew up in Fort Worth, has lived here since 1969, but is a steadfast fan of his home town Texas Rangers (who are, making things even more cosmically strange, the former Washington Senators, having abandoned the District after the 1971 season.)
When the Nats came to town, Schieffer fell hard for them, went to nearly every game at RFK, bought season tickets. He is aware — deeply, searingly aware — that there may come a day, perhaps this month, when his cherished Rangers and beloved Nats face each other in the World Series.
“That’s my secret wish,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do. I can’t bring myself to think about it.”
Whichever team Schieffer might side with in such an event would be his own business. But for politicians, such decisions are fraught with danger.
Which is why you may have seen more than half of the Supreme Court justices at Nats games this summer, and a slew of Cabinet members, and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Vice President Biden. But rare is the elected official who would publicly cop to a passion for the nightly derring-do of 19-year-old phenom Bryce Harper and the human marvel that is Stephen Strasburg.
“I can’t be photographed at a ballgame wearing Nats gear,” said a House member from a Northeastern state where allegiance to the home team is a political must (the congressman, incredibly but tellingly, insisted on anonymity even for a story about going to a baseball game.) “Sure, it’s crazy, but that’s politics.”
At this point in the capital’s political deterioration, it may be that only hardened veterans like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (in the Senate since 1985) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (since 1987) — whose support for the Nationals made Sports Illustrated last week — can afford to be seen embracing a team not from their home state. (Coming out as Nats fans is easier for Reid and McConnell than for many others in Congress because Nevada and Kentucky are states without sports franchises.)
If these arch-enemies can bond over the strategic achievements of (almost) fellow septuagenarian Davey Johnson, the Nationals’ manager, some say there may yet be hope for a return to the time when red-staters and blue-staters could hang out of an evening, potentially tilling the soil of compromise.
“The sports relationship among federal officials is not as relaxed as it used to be,” said Mark Tuohey, a lawyer at Brown Rudnick and a key figure in the years-long campaign to bring baseball back to Washington. Ethics rules have drastically diminished the number of politicians seen with lobbyists and lawyers in the luxury suites at Nationals Park. “We’ve lost the notion that you work hard and then relax and enjoy each other socially in the suite,” he said. “The stadium could help bring back some of those cordial relationships.”
The suites at the five-year-old ballpark haven’t come close to replicating the scene at RFK in the era when Edward Bennett Williams and then Jack Kent Cooke owned the Redskins. At Cooke’s funeral in 1997, Shirley Povich, the legendary Washington Post sportswriter, explained the cultural geography of the owner’s box like this: “In Washington, where you sat told where you stood.”
TV cameras each week documented the presence of boldface names such as Gen. Colin Powell, Virginia governors George Allen and Douglas Wilder, former senators Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, and commentators Pat Buchanan, George Will and Carl Rowan.
At Nats Park, the big names are scattered throughout the lower bowl and club level (even if the only views of the Capitol dome are from the cheap seats upstairs).
“Baseball is not an elite sport,” said conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams. “It’s an everybody sport, and you don’t go to be seen.”
Williams, who attends games with his baseball buddy, Industrial Bank president B. Doyle Mitchell Jr., credits the Nationals’ owners, the Lerner family, with “avoiding celebrity. Unlike the Redskins, they make the right decisions and built their team from the ground up. They’re humble and you can feel it in the stadium.”
Many political and media figures go to games not to schmooze, but because they are baseball addicts. “With the Redskins, it’s all about who’s in the owner’s box,” said D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At large), who gets free tickets during the regular season but said he is shelling out his own cash to see postseason action. “Here, it’s just ordinary people with real excitement about the game.”
Orange, who sold peanuts and popcorn at A’s games when he was growing up in Oakland, said this season’s success has brought new, less knowledgeable fans to the park, as winning will do. But he’s encouraged to see more people staying to game’s end, because the Nats keep coming back from behind in exciting ways.
In Section 128, behind the Nats dugout, columnist Charles Krauthammer, a regular since Year One, sees lots of people who share his illness, fans stuck on the team since its birth.
But he feels no sense of moral superiority over fans who have jumped on the bandwagon this year, boosting Nationals attendance from an average of 24,877 last year to 29,799. “Oh, no,” he said, “I think of myself as far more afflicted. It makes no sense as an adult that I’m in a far better mood if they win. It is completely irrational and speaks ill of me. The people who just started coming this year are a far healthier crowd.”
Krauthammer has come to understand that because he must go on TV to comment on the presidential debates, he will have to watch them with the sound on, meaning that the playoffs will be on the other screen, muted. “If I didn’t have to make a living, it wouldn’t even be open to discussion,” he is quick to add.
The columnist is professionally obligated to be critical of Washington, but he is prepared to make an exception for the growing legion of Nats fans, who, after eight seasons, are almost the real thing.
Almost. “How do we know when there’s a real fan base?” Krauthammer’s metric is simple. “When they stop doing The Wave.”