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In the Cellar With No Ladder in Sight
For Nats Fans, Dismal Season No Reason to Give Up on Fun

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 18, 2009

On a night when he could have seen, say, a production of "King Lear," or watched "Wheel of Fortune," or even stared at his living room walls, Brian Smith chose to spend $135 and suffer through yet another nine innings with America's worst baseball team.

A team so bad that it has inspired sarcasm from no less than the president of the United States.

Ladies and gentlemen, your Washington Nationals.

"I love baseball," said Smith, 32, a Barnes & Noble assistant manager, trying to explain the money he'd spent on three tickets as he stood outside the Nationals Park before Thursday's game against the Chicago Cubs.

"I've got blind optimism," he offered a moment later.

Finally: "Okay, it's $135 I don't spend on gambling or alcohol. There are worse vices you could have."

Losing has long been a great American pastime, the vanquished sometimes even mythologized as noble warriors. Think Joe Frazier after Muhammad Ali defeated him at their "Thrilla in Manila."

Yet to be a serial loser, as the Nationals have become, is to be a gum-chewing, tobacco-spewing punch line, even for the White House's Humorist-in-Chief, who remarked during Tuesday's All-Star Game how "terrific" it is that baseball is so competitive and that fans across the country have "a little bit of hope for their team."

President Obama then added, for the benefit of the game's TV audience: "Maybe with the exception of the Nationals."

Ouch.

"He was honest," acknowledged Pam Seay, 58, a retired Virginia State Police trooper, as she walked into Thursday's game with her brother, Rick, 44, a teacher who drove two hours from his Salisbury home. Both wore Nats caps and blue Nats jerseys.

"We're native Washingtonians," said her brother, by way of explaining their commitment.

"Yeah," agreed Pam, who spent her youth watching the Senators play woeful ball. "We're used to losers."

It wasn't supposed to be this way in Nats Town, as the team refers to its ballpark -- not by now, anyway. Five years ago, the Nats brought baseball back to Washington, claiming first place for nearly two months, their brief shining moment before settling into an undesirable Zip code: Loserville.

The current season has offered a special kind of pain, with the team on pace to drop a league-leading 114 games. Sure, there have been moments to remember: Ryan Zimmerman's 30-game hitting streak; the team snatching two of three against the Yanks in New York; and . . .

And?

Whatever.

The litany of the forgettable has included the demotion and trading of their once-star prospect, the resignation of their scandal-tarred general manager, the axing of the manager and pitching coach, and, through it all, a league-leading 85 errors and 63 defeats.

They can't even spell their own name correctly. In April, Zimmerman and Adam Dunn ran onto the field wearing uniforms with "N-A-T-I-N-A-L-S" across their chests, an embarrassing episode that provided yucks from coast to coast.

Is it any wonder that the team's average attendance has slipped from 33,728 its first year to 22,761 this year?

Wait, something to cheer about: The Nats draw better than three other last-place teams -- the Indians, Pirates and Athletics -- and even more than the second-place Florida Marlins.

Hooray?

And yet there was Rich Jones, 52, of Fort Washington, gazing at the field Thursday night, not at all agitated that he had spent $130 on two tickets and $25 for parking to see the Nats flounder again.

"What's our choice?" Jones asked. "When you love baseball, lousy baseball is better than no baseball."

No one looked happier than Joe Callahan, a real estate executive who owns four seats in the third row, each costing $307.50. He drank beers and focused anywhere but the field. "Look at those gals on top of the dugout," he said, grinning as he gazed at the Nationals' side of the diamond. "It's pure entertainment."

Before the game, down in their clubhouse, the Nats did their usual ballplayer things, dressing and watching TV and kibitzing. Willie Harris, a utility player, sang along with Michael Jackson and dismissed the notion that a losing season could dampen his mood: "I'm not going to lose sleep because I lost a ballgame. I lose sleep when my mother's sick."

He turned to Zimmerman and said, "Hey, Zim, do you get bummed out if we lose?"

Not after he leaves the ballpark, the third baseman replied.

Sitting at his locker, Joe Beimel, a relief pitcher, acknowledged that losing can make it tough to get excited about going to work. "I keep saying it can't get any worse, and then something happens," he said. Referring to the fans, Beimel said: "I've been kind of shocked no one gives you a hard time around here. Maybe they just don't care enough."

The annals of sport are rife with examples of disastrous seasons. The Cleveland Spiders won 20 games and lost 134 in 1899, their attendance so poor that opponents refused to play in their ballpark.

"Can't anybody here play this game?" Manager Casey Stengel asked as he watched his '62 Mets lose 120 games. Fans of the 1980 New Orleans Saints wore paper bags over their heads, "AINTS" scrawled across them to commemorate the team's 1-15 season.

Yet it would be hard to find anyone who knows more about losing than the founder of the Washington Generals, that congenitally hapless band of basketball players that has lost how many games to the Harlem Globetrotters?

"It's easier to tell you how many times they won," said Red Klotz, now 88 years old.

Twice.

And how many losses? "We're talking about thousands, 13,000 is a reasonable guess, give a thousand either way."

So how does one stomach all that failure?

"You love the game," Klotz said.

One way to endure a season with the Nats is to focus on individuals or moments. That's the strategy of 8-year-old Carson Hoffman, who loved watching Dunn's 300th home run launch like a rocket into the upper deck July 4.

Or there's Scott Ableman's method: He focuses on that singular Nats rite known as the presidents' race, in which human puppet versions of Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and Teddy Roosevelt race around the field.

Ableman's concern is that Roosevelt never triumphs, the subject of a blog he writes. He also sells "Let Teddy Win" T-shirts. Some of his readers believe that the Nats will never win with any consistency until Teddy's allowed one victory.

"A lot of people believe it's a travesty," said Ableman, 45, a marketing executive.

A Teddy curse?

Jerry Carroll, 57, a Springfield real estate agent, is convinced that the Nats' future depends on factors a tad more earthbound. Like that pickoff play in the bottom of the eighth Thursday, when the Nats' Nyjer Morgan was thrown out at first with the tying run at the plate?

Ugh.

"I know pain and suffering," Carroll said, before promising to return tonight for more punishment.

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