Washington Nationals fans and baseball writers will spend the long months until spring training starts next February sorting through just what went wrong in the season the Nationals are wrapping up this Sunday. Picked near-unanimously to win the World Series, the Nats instead gave up the division lead to the New York Mets for good in August and were eliminated from playoff contention a week ago.
A season that failed so spectacularly to meet such high expectations has no shortage of possible explanations: Manager Matt Williams lost the respect of his players. The stars got hurt, one after another. The front office traded for Jonathan Papelbon, who proved to be better at choking a teammate in a dugout fight than closing out wins. Williams turned out not to have any idea how the bullpen was supposed to work. The starting pitchers thought they were throwing batting practice all August.
All of those things are, sadly, true. But they’re symptoms, not causes, of what’s ailing the Nationals. To find the real reason there’s no joy along South Capitol Street these days, you’ve got to look back three years, to Oct. 3, 2012. That was when the curse started.
Yes, Nats fans, our team is afflicted by an honest-to-Jesus curse. For more than 80 years, the Boston Red Sox suffered under the Curse of the Bambino. The Chicago Cubs still stagger under the Curse of the Billy Goat. And now baseball has a new demonic force haunting a storied team: the Curse of Teddy. From the day the Nationals launched the Presidents Race in 2006 through seven glorious, quirky seasons, Teddy Roosevelt never won the 4th-inning outfield sprint among those massive-headed chief executives. Then, in late 2012, right after the franchise clinched the first trip to the playoffs for a D.C. Major League Baseball team since 1933, the Nationals let it happen. During the last game of the regular season, they let Teddy win. And thus they brought a nightmare down upon themselves.
Baseball is a game of numbers, so let’s look at the key stats, as tracked by the dedicated (but misguided) fan blog Let Teddy Win. In 2013, the former perennial loser was victorious in 11 races, and the Nationals didn’t make the playoffs. Last season, true, Teddy won more often than any other president, and the team was 18-8 when he triumphed. But that can’t obscure the most important data: He won both races during a 2014 playoff series against the San Francisco Giants, and the Nats lost both of those home games, the second after a blown lead and 18 innings, a finish so excruciating that only the memory of an even worse collapse against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2012 playoffs dims its pain. Teddy won the race that night, too, of course. In fact, he’s won during all five home playoff games the Nats have ever played. The team’s record in those games? A miserable 1-4.
This season, the team was 8-7 when Teddy won. But a closer look again reveals Teddy’s season-ending damage down the stretch. He won on Sept. 9, the night Drew Storen gave up a two-run homer in the 8th inning to complete a three-game sweep by the first-place Mets, dooming the season. (And, oh yes, Storen broke his thumb that night.) On Sept. 22, the team had a final chance to salvage its dying playoff hopes: If the Nats could sweep the Baltimore Orioles, they might be able to catch the Mets in the season’s final three games. Teddy kicked off Game 1 by beating Abe and the gang. The Nats promptly lost, in miserable fashion. They’d go on to get swept by the Orioles, in a series that saw Papelbon, their especially accursed closer, intentionally hit Baltimore’s Manny Machado with a pitch. It was Nationals superstar Bryce Harper’s criticism of that pitch that apparently provoked Papelbon to attack him in the dugout a few days later, ending Papelbon’s season (and possibly his tenure with the team).
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This didn’t have to happen. Again, for 525 games, the Easter-Island-headed Teddy always managed to pull off a face plant or find a pretty girl in the front row to distract him before the finish line. With his massive, say-cheese grin and tilting spectacles, he lost every single race to Abe or George or Tom. (William Howard Taft, Roosevelt’s real-life rival, didn’t join the race until 2013.)
Then, during that magical summer of 2012, as the Nats made their push for a pennant, some cockeyed fans started backing what had, up to then, been a lonely campaign to “let Teddy win.” Even the White House got involved.
At the time, my teenage son Sasha and I laughed at this foolhardiness, secure in the knowledge that the Nationals front office would never let that happen. As every serious baseball person knows, when things are going well, you don’t change anything. When the hits are falling and wins piling up, fans and players alike must take the exact same route to the ballpark every day and order the same brand of peanuts in the stands and sunflower seeds in the dugout. It’s not a superstition; what a frivolous concept, superstition, implying unfounded belief in extra-normal powers. This is a time-tested truth. Is believing in gravity a superstition? No. In baseball, you never make changes when things are going well. Period.
So as the Nats racked up their 98th win on that final day of the 2012 regular season, the last thing I expected to hear was that my team had turned one of its core traditions on its head. From some delusional corner of the front office, the word had gone out: Yes, let Teddy win. In my mind I see the culprit: some 24-year-old marketing idiot with a master’s degree in “corporate systems management” from the London School of Economics. He drinks hot tea at the park.
So America’s 26th president won that day. And despite the momentary excitement of seeing our team reach the playoffs, my son and I went into a deep and immediate period of grieving. Just ask all our friends: We knew bad things were coming. And I gotta believe you did, too, deep down, consciously or not.
Now, in the ashes of the failed 2015 season, I want to start a new movement, equal and opposite to those misguided “fans” who campaigned for Teddy to win in 2012. My campaign — and I beseech you to join me — is this: Let Teddy lose! Forever! During home games, he can bust out of the outfield gate with the others. He can run along the warning track toward the finish line. But he can never, ever be allowed to break the ribbon with his burly chest and giant necktie.
That’s not enough to lift the curse, though. So profound has been our baseball offense, and so slow have we been as a city to make amends as the criminal performances have piled up on the field and now in the dugout, that we must do more.
The real fix sits on the second floor of the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Like many dedicated fans, I made a visit there this summer, taking in the impressive display of Nats memorabilia and photos celebrating the 10th anniversary of the team’s arrival in Washington. The exhibit covers the early “rebuilding” years leading up to the arrival of manager Davey Johnson and respectability in 2011. Then much is made — rightly — of the 2012 season and all those wins and more wins.
But then you turn a corner, and there he is: Teddy, in a giant photo, crossing the finish line. And there they are: the garish yellow Under Armour sneakers he wore that day. I recoiled in horror. The shoes are like Kryptonite to me. Those shoes must be destroyed.
At a famous 2003 playoff game between the Cubs and Marlins at Wrigley Field, a fan reached out and deflected a foul ball that could have been caught by Cubs outfielder Moises Alou. The ball-that-got-away played a big role in keeping the Cubs out of the World Series that year. So what did the good fans and civic leaders of Chicago do the following winter? They took that baseball, placed it in a plexiglass cube and — during a huge rally — they blew the ball up. Exploded it to smithereens with cameras rolling and fans cheering. And look: The Cubs are playing better lately, headed to the playoffs this year.
The same needs to happen to Teddy’s shoes. We need to blow them up. Annihilate them with TNT. Only then can we begin to atone for our sins, restoring some hope that — if we simply stick to the fundamentals of hardball tradition — we can stagger back to the path of success. Our team has never needed us more than right now, Nats fans. So with conviction and a nod to the mysteries of scientific truth, say the words with me: “Let Teddy lose! Let Teddy lose!”