Brandon Fischer assumes we are doomed. The Bethesda graphic designer is braced for the worst as the Washington Nationals enter the Major League Baseball playoffs Friday. A believer in the “D.C. curse,” he expects to watch yet another home-team meltdown from his usual viewing position: “Curled up in my little pessimistic fetal ball and just letting it happen.”
But Hank Kilgore thinks we’ve got this. Greater experience and more veterans will see the team through against the L.A. Dodgers, said the District-based lobbyist for the wireless industry. “I’m confident they’re going to win this series.”
And to Jeff Menick, everything is just right, whether the Nats win or lose. The financial consultant and lifelong Washington baseball fan is so happy to have a winning team in town that he’s ready to count 2016 as a banner year even if there is no actual banner at the end of it. “What I have had to teach myself is to enjoy the regular season,” Menick said. “They have been performing terrifically, and I’m loving it.”
The Nationals’ third trip to the playoffs in the last five years is a Rorschach moment for a fan base that was badly burned by the team’s first two trips. In 2012, the first year of October baseball in almost 80 years, fans were uniformly giddy — and then uniformly crushed by a shocking last-inning loss of it all.
In 2014 they were yearning for redemption, seeking to wipe away the baseball demons that had been so cruel. Then, despite being early World Series favorites, the Nats lost in the first round again, folding after a grueling 18-inning game that ended with some fans huddled in bathrooms against the gloomy post-midnight chill.
And this year …
“They are all over the map,” said Dan Nejfelt, 38, a media consultant and member of the Half Street Irregulars, an informal group of hardcore fans who go to games, throw parties and raise money for charities in the name of Natstown. “There’s no common thread this year.”
The Nats will take the field having handily won their division and boasting a Cy Young Award-candidate in pitcher Max Scherzer, an MVP candidate in second baseman Daniel Murphy and genuine rookie phenomenon in center fielder Trea Turner. On the other hand, they’ve also been devastated by late-season injuries, including ace pitcher Stephen Strasburg and slugger Wilson Ramos.
It’s that mix of on-the-other-hands that has let a thousand fan neuroses bloom. The optimists have set their jaws, the Pollyannas are humming happily and the Eeyores will watch through their fingers.
And, like Brian Steblay and Nate Jones, they will argue until the last out.
“Dude, Ramos is gone, and if they load their lineup with lefties,” Steblay was saying emphatically over a bucket of Tecates earlier this week at Duffy’s Irish Pub in Northwest Washington. Jones rolled his eyes
“You wave that away, but —” Steblay said.
“That’s conventional thinking,” interrupted Jones, 33, a hardcore optimist and a staffer at the nonprofit National Security Archives. “The Dodgers have as many injuries as the Nats do.”
Jones owns every Nats bobblehead (including most minor leaguers). He used Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain copies of the State Department file on Ramos’s 2011 kidnapping in Venezuela. He’s all in.
“I don’t buy this ‘We’re doomed’ stuff,” he said. “The person who says that is the person who will leave the game early.”
Steblay prefers to wrap himself a flak jacket of cynicism. “Baseball’s gonna break your heart,” said the 30-year-old political consultant. “The first two times [to the playoffs] were amazing. Now I’ve seen them drop this series twice. I’m very afraid.”
For the Eeyores, this how a jinx starts. Just ask the Red Sox, who made the playoffs routinely during an 86-year World Series drought, or the Chicago Cubs, who may be on the verge of ending their own 108-year run without a ring. Theirs is a land of mystical baseball currents where hope is a hazard and #dccurse is always trending.
Fischer, the graphic designer, feels the clouds gathering. He sees less excitement in the streets than he did for the Nats’ first playoff run, when downtown buildings hung “W” flags and red caps dotted the Metro crowds. A confirmed dark-sider — “I’m the worst person to watch a game with.” — he looks across Washington sports and sees hexes in every locker room.
“I’ve been burned too many times, by the Nationals, by the Wizards, by the Redskins,” said Fischer, 30.
All over town, the superstitious are doing what they can. More than 600 fans came to the ballpark Wednesday to add their lucky charms to a communal juju pile, including soiled caps, tattered scorecards, a firefighter’s helmet. For Friday’s game, Brandon Boucher will ditch the old Washington Senators hat he was wearing when they lost in 2014 but he will wear his still-untainted Turner jersey.
“Bad things can happen, you know,” said the running store manager from Alexandria.
Some pros see all the fan agonistes as a sign that the franchise is maturing into a solidly entrenched local institution. Coming to town for the series will be Stan Kasten, the Dodgers’ CEO and part-owner and the founding president of the Nationals back in 2006. He has been watching from the West Coast as the fan base he nurtured has blossomed into a devoted horde that bought 2.5 million tickets this year.
“I’m not worried about the fan base in Washington at all,” Kasten said. “What I’m concerned about is that they are so very good as a team and as an organization.”
Kasten’s first MLB team, the Atlanta Braves, is an oft-cited example of a franchise that would so routinely flame out in the playoffs that fans began to ignore the annual postseason tease. Nats followers say Washington is not there yet.
“Losing the first two trips to the playoff was wounding, but I don’t think we’re at the complacency level of Atlanta, where they won the division 14 times and they weren’t selling out playoff games,” said Phil Wood, a Washington baseball lifer and commentator for MASN. “We’re not that used to winning.”
Within a few days, fans will know if the third time is charmed and the Nats move on to the next round, or if fate is sizing them up as lovable losers — a label the Cubs are desperate to pass along. And each will process the result differently.
“If I’m heartbroken again, I’ll still be thankful that I felt that emotion,” said Steblay, warily nursing a beer. “It means I care, and it’s better than feeling nothing.”
Even the Eeyores have their path to joy.