In D.C., 'W' Spells More Than Baseball

For some buyers, choosing a Nationals cap isn't simply a matter of aesthetics. It's a political decision.
For some buyers, choosing a Nationals cap isn't simply a matter of aesthetics. It's a political decision. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 5, 2005

A free association exercise: Think of a Washington Nationals baseball cap. What's the next thing that pops into your head?

Some people think of the old Senators, whose caps inspired the new team's logo. Some think of the first-place team they now root for, or of hometown pride.

Then there are those steeped in the kind of partisan perspective that forced the french fry to decide whether it was with us or against us. They can't get past the "W," as in the president's trademark middle initial.

That can be good: "My immediate reaction was, 'W! Perfect!,' " said Dan Mintz, 57, of Bethesda. "Not only do I get to root for Washington, but I get to root for George."

Or it can be bad: "I just couldn't get myself to wear the red hat with the 'W' on it," said Jerry Stewart, 41, of Sterling, who bought a replica of the cap the Nationals wear for away games. Those hats are Democrat blue; the home caps are Republican red.

Among the thousands of nonpartisan Nationals hats bobbing around the city, there are some whose owners intend for them to have political meaning. It's not unlike the difference between people who call the airport by the Potomac "National" and those who refer to it as "Reagan."

"It's a little bit of a thing," said Paul Strauss (D), one of the District's shadow senators in Congress. He bought one of the Nationals' alternate caps, which features "DC" instead of the W.

This is not, of course, the first time that a Washington baseball team has had "W" on its caps. The practice goes back to at least 1908.

When Major League Baseball officials were designing the uniforms for the new Washington franchise last winter, they tried to copy the loose, cursive "W" logo used by the city's last team, the 1971 Senators.

During the design process, a baseball spokeswoman said, nobody made the connection to a certain political figure, for whom the same 23rd letter of the alphabet is a down-home nickname.

"The political part of it never came up," said Kathleen Fineout, baseball's director of marketing communications.

So far, news of the political subtext still hasn't filtered up to the Nationals' front office, said David Cope, the team's vice president for sales and marketing. "Never heard of it," he said. "It's 'W' for Washington."

But in the lower concourses of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, the issue is obvious to souvenir vendors. "They say, 'W? Does that stand for Bush?' " said Gary Berned, speaking of fans that visit his kiosk.

Vendor Mike Aman said baseball fans who aren't fans of the president often choose the caps with the "DC" logo, even after he tells them that the team doesn't wear that model during games.

Neither the White House nor either of the national political parties appears to have tapped into the hat's symbolic value. When President Bush threw out the first pitch at the Nationals' home opener in April, he didn't even wear a cap.

But at the local level, some politicians are catching on.

Montgomery County Republicans, for instance, wore matching red "W" hats when 32 of them attended a recent Nationals game. "They like the red ones, especially," said county GOP Chairman Tom Reinheimer. For Montgomery's Democratic Party, the "W" hat was not a source of pride but the subject of an internal debate by treasurer Simon Atlas. Atlas said he bought one of the red caps, then was torn between his love for the team and his unhappiness with the president.

Finally, he settled on a compromise.

"I'll wear it to the games," he resolved, "but nowhere else."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company