Washington has unique baseball memories, unlike any other city — awful ones.
D.C. baseball fans have the distinction of enduring the longest run of terrible results in the annals of any American sport. That is, unless you can find someone else whose teams are 1,047 games under .500 since 1901.
That’s correct, Washington is still more than a thousand games to the wrong side of the ledger, even after posting the best record in the sport last season and being picked by both ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated to win the World Series this year.
No team in our other major sports has even existed long enough to compete with Washington’s brand of sustained frustration. The nation’s capital was “first in war, first in peace and last in . . . ” before the NFL, NBA and NHL were even born.
Within MLB’s long-running cities, the only challenger is Philadelphia. But even the futile Phillies with their .473 percentage since 1884, are much better than D.C.’s “career” mark of .457 with three different franchises.
If you want to sense the sweep of D.C.’s desolation at baseball, consider Tampa Bay, an area that’s only had a team since 1998 but already hosted a World Series. If the Rays can maintain their current lousiness (.454 through their brief history) for another 97 years, they have a chance to nip Washington in total suffering. Of course, they also have to lose their team for a third of a century, then beg for decades until they get it back.
In 79 big league seasons, Washington has had 11 clubs that lost 100 games but none, ever, that won 100. The town’s one World Series win in 1924 almost seems like an insult of a different sort — standing solitary and so distant that perhaps no living Washingtonian can recall it clearly.
This is the town that endured far more seasons without any big league team at all (33) than it’s had winning seasons in its whole history (20). Defeat, disdain and disenfranchisement are the definition of D.C. until now.
It’s a special tradition. We know it. We hate it. And if the wheel of karma finally turns, we’re unlikely to pity anyone who’s squashed by it.
Maybe the Nationals’ motto should be: “Your turn to cry.”
The law of probability says that Washington’s memories will start to even up — after so many mean years, finally a reversion to the mean. That could make for a good century.
That’s not just a wisecrack. Baseball actually does produce franchises that have spectacularly long runs of success or failure. There may even be a virtuous victory loop, where the team that starts winning builds a fan base that creates a tradition that becomes self-reinforcing with each generation.
“A good century” has been the fate of a lucky few. Most teams trend toward .500 over time, but not all. The Yankees, Giants and Dodgers are 2,369, 1,514 and 949 games over .500. St. Louis, not a big or rich city, is plus 719, and much more than that since Rogers Hornsby arrived long ago.
Washington fans reserve a special curl of the lip for the franchises that bemoan their misery when, in reality, what they have “endured” would be Washington’s idea of baseball nirvana.
Cubs followers wallow in their lack of a World Series title since 1908, yet their franchise is 492 games over .500 and, even in bad times, has had 17 winning teams since 1967. (Washington has had two.) Watching baseball in Wrigley Field isn’t exactly the 12 Stations of the Cross.
Red Sox fans and their Curse are the Wurse. Their franchise is 580 games over .500 in its history and, since 1967, has had 38 winning years out of 46. That’s an incredible era of success. But fans and cities choose the memories they prefer to underline. Boston has focused on the worst.
For generations, D.C. has had a distinctive and probably adaptive relationship with its painful baseball memories: selective forgetting. Perhaps the reason that the NL Nationals have been embraced enthusiastically after just one excellent year — following seven bad-to-mediocre ones — is because Washington somehow avoided bitterness and cynicism toward the game. The ability to choose which memories to cherish and which to flush is a key.
In my childhood, the Post sports section often ran the same headline: “Sievers Homers, But Nats Lose.” Then it was “Killebrew Homers, But Nats Lose.” A decade later, the line read, “Howard Homers, But Senators Lose.”
When I began working at the Post, linotype machines still had to put every letter in its place in lead type — slow work; Shirley Povich explained the But-Nats-Lose phenomenon: “It’s called a ‘standing head.’ Why throw it away? You’ll just have to use it again. It saves time on deadline.”
Every year for decades, that headline, and variations of it with Mickey Vernon or Jim Lemon or Mike Epstein or, eventually, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn was always ready to go. For me, that defined Washington’s attitude toward baseball: Look for the best inside the worst.
Washington’s eternity of But-Nats-Lose is finally gone. But being on the wrong side of history for more than 100 years makes for a deep ambivalence toward the novel experience of an exceptional team with an excellent future.
To say, “it’s about damn time” is a huge understatement. Yet it’s hard to make those words come out of your mouth. Many fans, though not all, view the current Nats through this perverse historical prism. It’s tempting to be easily satisfied: “Just give us a decent team to watch for a change after all this junk we’ve tolerated and the treks to Baltimore.”
There’s an even more fatalistic gremlin that gets into some minds: Please, don’t let Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper get hurt too soon; let them have a few good years before our past catches up with their future.
On the other hand, another powerful sentiment sits just below the surface, waiting to be born. Though few want to articulate it for fear of jinxing the new Nats, there’s deep curiosity to see if some big time magic isn’t at work here — like Strasburg and Harper turn out to be Joe Hardy times two.
For the moment, Washington’s past baseball memories and its future possibilities swirl together to create a very odd blend. Over the next few years, however, that’s probably going to change. Even longtime D.C. fans have little sense of how ridiculously horrible the town’s baseball has been.
If the Nats were 200 games over .500 in the next 20 years, they would still have a lower winning percentage than any other original major league city. Wouldn’t the cosmic law of what-goes-around-comes-around have to be repealed for something along those lines not to occur?
No other town has supported so much bad baseball for so long. In fact, no other city is even remotely close. One year ago, Washington was 1,081 games under .500. Now, after 98-64, there are only 1,047 more losses than wins to erase. Talk about your long-term deficit-trimming projects.
That could create a whole lot of memories.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.