Sure, Washington is home to people from every state and practically every country in the world — and many of them are now rooting passionately for the Nationals. So what? You don’t have to be born in the area where your team plays to identify with it. But the truth is, the bulk of the Nationals’ diehard fan base is likely made up of longtime locals who were either born in the area or have lived here many years. I know; I’m one of them.
It may come as a surprise to some observers from outside the region, who annually highlight the team’s popularity in Official Washington, but most Nats fans don’t work for the administration, Congress or the media. They’re accountants and teachers, nurses and electricians, plumbers and Uber drivers. And yes, there are some elected officials and government bureaucrats, too. Everyone is welcome at the ballpark. That’s part of what makes sports so special, especially in a town often defined by its divisions.
A huge number of Nats fans aren’t late to the bandwagon, either. We didn’t all just fall in love with Washington baseball during this amazing five-month run. For some, it started way back in the Senators days. D.C. has a long and proud baseball history, from Walter Johnson to Josh Gibson to Frank Howard to Ryan Zimmerman. For many, like me, the romance began on Opening Day, 2005.
Long before metal detectors were routine at stadiums, 45,596 of us waited in hour-long lines to get through the gates at hallowed RFK, with the president in attendance to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The inaugural season was surreal, and not just because the 34-year wait to bring baseball back to the city was finally over. With a shocking 51-30 record under Manager Frank Robinson and his unheralded team, the Nats were the talk of the league. That run ended with a 30-51 second-half thud, and Nats fans would soon grow accustomed to disappointment.
But that was okay. Having baseball back in the District was enough, for a time.
I’ll always cherish those first few years the Nats played at RFK, tailgating in those hot summer nights on the Anacostia in Lot 8 with friends and family. The hot dogs from the concessions were sometimes questionable, and the rusty seats with their faded orange and burgundy and gold colors weren’t the most comfortable, but it was all ours. Sure, the Nats were bad, and the iconic old stadium was a dump. But we loved them anyway. Baseball was back in D.C. and that was what really mattered.
In 2008, we got a beautiful new stadium in Navy Yard that would transform an entire quadrant of the city … and 100-loss seasons promptly followed. Phillies fans invaded by the thousands, reminding us often and loudly we were the former Expos and ridiculing us for once having “Natinals” on our jerseys (a printing mistake we’ll never be allowed to forget).
During those abysmal last-place seasons, we were known more for the Racing Presidents than our on-field accomplishments. Then in 2012, everything changed. Suddenly, we were the best team in baseball.
Fans will never forget that landmark season, the beginning of this eight-year (and counting) run of excellence. But, as much joy as that first playoff season brought us, it ended in unfathomable heartbreak. A 6-0 lead in Game 5 of the NLDS turned into a 9-7 season-ending nightmare. We learned a painful lesson that night.
More NL East domination followed with a familiar script: hype and raised expectations, invariably followed by misery and national humiliation. Exciting regular seasons and division titles in 2014, 2016 and 2017 all ended in depressing first-round exits, with each October loss sadder than the last.
We’ve been through a lot, from one manager quitting midseason and taking his sorrows to Caddies, to another being booed off the stage of his postgame news conference (sorry, Matt Williams). All the while, Washington fans kept loving their Nats. And for all the ridiculous criticism about our supposed lack of passion, attendance really hasn’t been bad at Nationals Park, never worse than 16th in baseball over the last eight years, and four times ranking in the top 11. That will only improve next year.
The fans have paid their dues through sweat and tears and dollars. So many have lived and loved and breathed Nationals baseball through it all: the miserable seasons, the thrilling ones and everything in between. That’s what makes this year so much sweeter. The 19-31 start, the manager whom most wanted fired, the turnaround, the dancing in the dugout, the baby-sharking in the stands: I wouldn’t change a thing.
D.C. is buzzing. And as the city hosts its first World Series games since 1933, it’s worth reflecting on how far we’ve come. Enjoy this moment, Nats fans. We’ve earned it.
Rudy Gersten is a Washington native.