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A City on the Upswing

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, September 12, 2005

Washington fans have waited generations to see their city become a sports town with the full banquet of pleasures set before them year-round like the lucky folks in places such as Boston, Chicago and New York. This weekend, the evidence became indisputable that the time has finally arrived. Joe Gibbs coaching at FedEx Field as the Nationals play at RFK . . . just pinch me.

On Saturday in RFK, I watched the Nats, still on the fringes of postseason contention, draw 44,083 fans to play the Atlanta Braves. The crowd, which reached the top row in center field, was only slightly smaller than the Opening Day sellout. On the way to RFK, I encountered traffic caused by the crowd of 50,637 headed to the Maryland-Clemson game at Byrd Stadium. Then, leaving the Nats game, I had to avoid the 35,670 headed to the Navy-Stanford game in Annapolis in the evening.

Yesterday, I skipped the Nats and Braves, who drew 112,212 fans for three games, to watch the Redskins win their season opener 9-7 at FedEx against Chicago before a crowd of 90,138. That's right, more than 200,000 fans to see the Redskins and Nats on the same weekend. The Skins throng roared so loudly that, in the most important series of plays in the game, the flummoxed Bears couldn't hear their signals and false-started three times in a row.

"That was FedEx Field the way I sure remember it," began coach Joe Gibbs, who probably meant to say that FedEx was as loud as RFK Stadium used to be. They're only nine miles apart, so it's easy to forget.

At the very moment the Redskins were pushing the Bears' offense back from the Washington 34-yard line to the Bears 38-yard line, and essentially sealing their win, the Nats were scoring four runs in the eighth inning to jump ahead of the Braves, 7-6. Just as the Redskins were celebrating their win over a weak foe that they absolutely had to beat, the Nats were losing by that same score -- 9-7 -- on back-to-back homers in the ninth by Chipper and Andruw Jones.

Maybe the Redskins, who barely beat the sad-sack Bears, and the Nats, who recoil every time they get a sniff of the wild card, are just a couple of .500 teams. Perhaps Gibbs is still relearning the game he once mastered. Maybe the Nats aren't even close yet to being real contenders. But to many who've followed these teams for decades, this weekend was a watershed.

Or as ex-Redskin Sonny Jurgensen said: "Sports is alive and well in Washington. Hey, what did the Nats do?"

Sometimes, the enormous growth of a community is measured in unexpected ways. A place, constantly described as "a sleepy Southern town" a half-century ago, gradually evolves into a full-blown sprawling city with constantly expanding suburbs. Then, one day, you realize that this morphing piece of geography -- the whole Washington area -- has become more than just another large city, one comparable to America's very largest.

One thing, however, has not quite kept pace with that growth. Washington area fans, or at least some of them, may not have absorbed the idea that truly big-time sports cities enjoy the entire smorgasbord, rather than simply picking one team to adore.

In other words, Washington is no longer strictly "a Redskins town." We've become too big for that. The Wizards, after eons in the wilderness, actually won a round in the NBA playoffs this spring. With Ernie Grunfeld as their general manager, this probably is no aberration. The Maryland basketball team now hangs its 2002 NCAA championship banner in its new Comcast Center. D.C. United is a perennial pro soccer power. Even the Caps of the NHL, rumor has it, still exist.

Compare Washington to a city that has had all of the sports world's riches for years: Boston. There, the Red Sox always get top billing and have for generations. Their position is comparable to the Redskins' dominance here, well deserved because of those world titles from Sammy Baugh in the '30s to Gibbs's recent crowns. But that doesn't stop New England from going giddy about the Patriots' three Super Bowl victories in four years. When the Celtics and Bruins were in their glory, they had enormous followings. In Beantown, fans of one team are almost always, to varying degrees, fans of all the franchises.

The same is true in Chicago, where "Da Bears, Da Bulls and Da Cubs" reign as unchallenged symbols of civic pride and, as the seasons turn, of almost universal focus. The White Sox still haven't won many hearts, but even the Blackhawks have their place. Of course, the same is true of New York, where multiple allegiances, all of them passionate, coexist easily. True, you may want to pick: Yanks or Mets, Giants or Jets, Knicks or Nets, Rangers or Islanders or Devils. But it would be considered pathetically provincial to think that a city as vast as New York could not accommodate many sports loves, all of them deep.

For days there has been a perverse desire around town to decide who "won" this weekend's comparison between the Redskins and Nationals, as if there was some championship-of-Washington attendance battle being fought. The idea that both franchises might be large winners -- something that would immediately leap to mind to fans of the Red Sox and Patriots -- didn't enter many minds here.

That, perhaps, is simply part of the growth pains the Washington area has experienced in the last decade. We don't quite grasp how large and rich we've become and how much we contain, how much we can support -- with room to spare. When the District considers the new Anacostia waterfront ballpark, and wonders how much risk is involved in spending $540 million on a ballpark, it might want to remember the attendance figures all around town this weekend.

Some, however, have made the transition to a more enlightened view. In the Redskins' locker room, linebacker Marcus Washington wore a blue Nationals cap with a script "W." Was that because his name was "Washington" or because of the Nats? "A little bit of both," he said, laughing. "I like the Nationals. They've shown a lot of heart. We've got the best of both worlds."

Over the next few years, look for Washington's primary teams to share the area, as is the case in the country's largest and most-confident cities. Ironically that's how it was here long ago when the stakes were lower. "I remember when Ted Williams was the manager of the Senators in '69 and Vince Lombardi was our coach," Jurgensen said. "Ted would let us take batting practice with the Senators at RFK. One day, [wide receiver] Pat Richter hit some line drives. Williams said, 'Move your right hand like this,' and he adjusted Richter's grip.

"Pat started hitting the ball a mile. It was amazing. One look and Williams fixed him."

Could Teddy Ballgame help Jurgy? Did ol' No. 9 ever hit one over the fences at RFK Stadium?

"No," said Jurgensen. "I just had warning-track power."

For decades, that's all Washington had as a sports town. Not anymore.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company