Opening Day is about the future, about things unseen. And yet, while you toasted Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, Adam Lind and Adam Eaton, a new season and a Nats win on the third day of April, you missed something pointing toward the past, something you’ve most definitely seen before.
It happened in the middle of the fourth inning, as those grinning politicos with the steroid heads gallivanted across right field, led by the bespectacled Teddy Roosevelt. “C’mon Teddy, keep it up!” urged Jerome Hruska, the voice of Nationals Park, offering a clarion clue amid the din.
The older Rushmore trio lagged well behind, until a strangely recognizable denouement, deja vu on a day that should encourage jamais vu. Jefferson and Washington simultaneously jostled past Roosevelt and then slapped hands in sinister glee. Lincoln roared past that trio for the win. And Teddy tumbled to the ground, holding up his hands to ask this cruel world why he deserved such a fate.
Like I said, you missed it. Scott Ableman didn’t.
“To have Teddy be way ahead, in the lead, and then get attacked by the other presidents was just something too familiar, something we hadn’t seen in five years,” said the leader of the populist Let Teddy Win movement, whose existential purpose seemed permanently retired five years ago. “I felt a sense of foreboding; I really did. I wasn’t joking about it. I thought, ‘Oh my God, maybe they’re trying to recapture something that was lost.’ I mean, there was a lot more interest in the Presidents Race, I think generally, when Teddy’s losing streak was a national story. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.”
Or can you? Because while you’ve been paying attention to the explosive offense and the explosive bullpen, the Teddy shtick has arisen. Already this season, according to Ableman’s invaluable Web site, Roosevelt has tripped and fallen near the race’s end, and also been distracted by a blueberry pie. He’s faded at the finish line, and also been rattled by a sign reading “BOO!” He’s been tackled by George Washington, and also been sidetracked by a giant lucky penny on National Lucky Penny Day. He’s dived into the stands to avoid hot lava, and also become hopelessly sidetracked by a hamburger.
“I mean, it’s right out of the old playbook,” Ableman said.
Which means Teddy has lost, and lost, and lost again. The official standings halfway through the home slate? Jefferson 14, Lincoln 13, Washington 13, Screech the Eagle 1, and Teddy 0. Nada. Zip.
— Adam P. Levy (@adamplevy) July 4, 2017
This is silliness, yes, but it’s also news, in a way. After all, The Washington Post slapped Teddy’s first win on A1 five years ago. And it’s hard to overstate how much attention his epic losing streak — which stretched more than 500 games — generated that summer, as the Nationals cruised toward their first division title and first playoff appearance.
Teddy made the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and lured out an “ABC World News Tonight” crew. He prompted an ESPN piece (narrated by Ken Burns), a John McCain quote (“I’ve been paying a LOT of attention to the fact that one of the truly great presidents in history has NEVER won a race,” he said in those simpler times) and a statement from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney (“I’m comfortable saying that my boss agrees with Senator McCain,” Carney said.) History buffs offered real outrage that a president as hale and healthy as Roosevelt had become a bumbling, lovable loser. Players were asked about Teddy, and they had real and impassioned answers.
“Teddy’s the man; he’s a hero and needs to be rewarded with a victory,” Drew Storen said that summer.
“A great American president. Just a great American, period,” said Jayson Werth, who also told ESPN that Roosevelt’s situation”needs to be addressed,” and that Teddy and his races were “very symbolic of where this organization goes.”
The final home series of that groundbreaking season was dubbed the “Teddy in 2012” series, with Teddy-themed giveaways and videos starring John Cena, Army members and McCain. And Teddy, of course, won at the final home game, and then kept winning in the playoffs. Before possibly the best game in team history — Game 4 of that NLDS series, which Werth won with that unforgettable walk-off homer — Mark DeRosa even read from Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena speech, concluding “You know who spoke these words? Teddy F-ing Roosevelt.”
That was, for better or worse, the peak of the Racing Presidents. Since then, other presidents (Taft, Coolidge, Hoover) have been introduced and then retired; strange characters (Sharknado, Martha Washington, a giant cicada) have made guest appearances; Teddy became just a regular ol’ competitor, and the race itself lost some of its primacy. Sweet relief for a decent number of players and fans.
“I am so glad Teddy won so we can stop talking about Teddy,” Ryan Zimmerman said after his maiden win. “People get more excited for a mascot race than a game.”
And so here we are, facing at least two schools of thought. School one holds that the Teddy gimmick offered wondrous distraction when the Nats were putrid, but became both unnecessary and belittling for a first-division club competing for championships. That’s to say nothing of the insult to Roosevelt’s legacy as “this great, bad-ass president,” as Ableman put it.
“I thought we would never come back to this day,” he said. “I cannot understand how they could make the decision to finally end the injustice, and then a few years later decide to bring it back again. What were they thinking? … Maybe somebody thinks that a losing streak is going to gin up some more national interest heading into the playoffs once again, and who knows, they may be right. But that doesn’t make it right.”
Werth would no doubt agree; the last time he saw Ableman, he was still reveling in what they accomplished in 2012, saying, “Hey man, we did it. We did it.”
But the other side could reasonably argue that letting Teddy win was an all-time sports marketing blunder, that the team voluntarily kneecapped one of the great promotions in sports, and that in any case a division title was not the proper occasion for such a world-altering event. His win indicated that the team had crossed some finish line it hadn’t yet reached; fans once argued that Teddy’s losses were a curse, and now fans argue that his win was a curse. “Let Teddy lose! Forever!” as a Washington Post opinion writer once opined.
The team, per longstanding policy, isn’t exactly forthcoming on this matter; “Wait and see…” advised a team spokeswoman in an exchange that really ought to be preserved by the Newseum.
The casual fan hasn’t caught on yet, but Ableman’s ticket-plan holding friends all know what’s going on, have noticed the old gags return. Now maybe this is a build-up to the 2018 All-Star Game. Maybe it’s a two-year crescendo to the centennial of Roosevelt’s death. Maybe this is pointing toward a World Series win, or maybe there’s a shorter-term endgame. But if people haven’t noticed yet, they soon will.
“Tough year,” MASN’s Bob Carpenter recently remarked, after Roosevelt was derailed by yet another bout of misfortune.
“Are we trying to reset the whole Teddy doesn’t win thing?” asked his partner, F.P. Santangelo.
“It kind of looks like it,” Carpenter said. “Let Teddy Win.”