This week, a story on Washington’s “Loss Generation” captured the frustration and anger of many young D.C. sports fans who have not had a single championship team to cheer since the 1992 Super Bowl, a span of 23 years in fandom wilderness. Dan Steinberg interviewed a group of 23-year-old fans who variously described their lifelong experience in Washington sports as “Debilitating. Exhausting. Sickening. Complicated. Abusive.”
The Post also ran illuminating, and depressing, charts of the past decade — the period when the Nationals arrived in town and made Washington one of a dozen cities in the United States with teams in all four major sports. D.C. ranked 11th out of 12, ahead of only the Twin Cities, and far behind 10th-place Miami in overall winning percentage. The pain is not just that D.C. ranks low; it’s that the teams have been so far from even being mediocre. Twenty-plus years in the desert. A dismal decade.
As soon as I read it, I said, “That ‘Loss Generation’ — that was me growing up in Washington. I have lived that, too. And for exactly as long and exactly as bad.”
My next thought was, “They don’t know what happens next. I lived that, too — when the long cycle turns. It’s the greatest. And they don’t even see it coming.”
Washington sports fans need to get ready for a shock. The next 20 or more years in D.C are likely to be as wonderful, as full of title games and parades, as the past 23 years have been pitiful. And I think it’s already started happening again.
Let me take you back — just a moment’s patience, please, for perspective. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it echoes.
Before I was born, Washington lost in the NFL championship game in December of 1945. From that day until 1972 — almost 27 years — Washington was the wasteland of sports in America. We were a national joke. The idea of coming here, even to coach, was considered career suicide.
Washington did not have a single team, and barely any individual who rose to the top of an important sport. That includes college basketball and football, which mattered far more than the NHL in those days. As I grew up, D.C. also lost three pro franchises — the Senators twice and the one-year Capitals of the ABA.
By the time I was 24, the highlight of my life as a fan — and I was a rabid fan of everything — were Navy’s losses in the 1961 Orange Bowl and 1964 Cotton Bowl, the latter a true No. 1 vs. No. 2 national championship game. Texas won, 28-6. Even Heisman Trophy winners Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach couldn’t get us to the top. Nothing in my youth came within 100 miles of those games for importance. My luck as a fan was so bad that I was much too young to remember Maryland’s 1951 undefeated football team that beat No. 1-ranked Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl.
On my first day of work at the Washington Post in 1969 as a part-timer, I had no intention of even considering sports writing as a career. Why? In part because we all knew that Washington sports was “cursed.” The word was used constantly — just as it is today. But it was much worse then.
Back then, the curse didn’t arrive in the postseason or some late-season failure to finish in first place. For 20 years, Washington teams were awful in everything almost every year. That was the natural order. Why would you spend your life writing about a bunch of bums?
Sure, columnist Shirley Povich covered titles won with Walter Johnson and Sammy Baugh. But Shirley got the beautiful 21 years from ’24 through ’45 when the Redskins and Senators played in a total of nine championship games in the only two pro sports that mattered back then. Livin’ large.
Then the “damn” burst. For 20 years, from ’72 to ’92, Washington had a glory era in sports. It actually started in 1969 when Ted Williams, Vince Lombardi and Lefty Driesell, who had other options, came to Washington. We could hardly believe it. Why would anyone in their right mind want to manage or coach the Senators, Redskins or Terps, much less giants like Vince and Ted, or a hot young coach like Lefty? But they did, and it changed the whole town’s tone of voice.
The Senators immediately went 86-76, the Redskins had their first winning season in 15 years (7-5-2) and Lefty proclaimed College Park “the UCLA of the East.”
Even now it’s hard to believe how violently the pendulum swung. It’s said that winning is contagious. In Washington, it became an outbreak.
The Redskins went to the Super Bowl in ’73, ’83, ’84, ’88 and ’92; they won three. The Bullets came to the Capital Centre in ’74; they went to the NBA Finals in ’75, ’78 and ’79, winning D.C.’s first world title in any pro sport in 36years in ’78. The Bullets also were one of the NBA’s final four teams in four other seasons.
Lefty’s Terps were ranked No. 2 in the polls at some point in every season from ’72 through ’76 and took an ACC regular season title from Tobacco Road and its refs in ’75. John Thompson Jr. transformed the Georgetown Hoyas from typical dismal D.C. losers to three trips to the Final Four and an NCAA title in ’84.
Washington also adopted the Orioles —“if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with” — who, with a Washington-based owner, Edward Bennett Williams, made two World Series and earned a title in ’83. Even Sugar Ray Leonard, the best-known fighter in the world at the time, became a kind of 1980s Washington franchise.
The arrival in D.C. of Alex Ovechkin, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, John Wall and Robert Griffin III reminds me of the mood change when Lombardi, Williams, Dreisell and George Allen came to town. They didn’t all succeed. Tragically, Lombardi died after one season and Williams became a Ranger.
But something had changed. At first, there were frustrations. Despite all the winning between 1972 and 1978, there were no titles. Then the Bullets broke through. And in the spring of ’84, the Redskins had been to back-to-back Super Bowls, the Hoyas were NCAA champs and the Orioles held the World Series trophy.
On my first date with my future wife, we went to Duke Ziebert’s restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. Both the Super Bowl and World Series trophies were on display in the lobby. “Who is Joe Theismann?” she asked. The Hoyas were two months away from their NCAA title. Sugar Ray had just come out of retirement: ultimate destination — a victory over Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
I can’t offer a shred of evidence that 2015 to 2035, or 2017 to 2037, will be a period when the Nats, Caps and Wizards play in nine world championship series. Just because 1924-45 and 1972-92 were wonderful doesn’t mean that 20-year cycles are inherent to D.C. sports. But why not?
If Daniel Snyder, the most damaging D.C. sports owner of my lifetime, ever takes his hands off the throat of his football team — preferably by selling it — there might even be more Super Bowls.
You ask, “How long, oh, lord?”
When it turns, it’ll probably turn fast. In just three months, I wouldn’t be amazed if the Capitals (the only pro team to reach a championship round since 1992) were in the Stanley Cup finals for the second time in their history.
The stat nut in me rates them the fifth-best NHL team this season and the second-strongest Capitals team in playoff potential in the past 20 years. And they have major stars — goalie Braden Holtby is third in the NHL in Point Shares while Ovechkin, who has 10 more goals than anybody else, is No. 5 in that catch-all category. Nicklas Backstrom leads the league in assists. Barry Trotz is the first proven veteran coach the team has had in 20 years. Chalk says they win only one round. But the Caps have a puncher’s chance to go much further.
The Nationals are the preseason World Series favorites. Ignore the silly first week of the season. Come back June 1 and you’ll see why. The only thing that may stand between the Nats and a World Series is the Dodgers.
Whether or not the break-the-hex year is 2015, it’s probably coming. With the exception of the decimated Redskins, who are currently at their lowest point since 1961, everybody else is now a winner and headed in a good direction. The Nats’ front office is an industry leader.
Someday, when we look back at the past 10 years, we may see the arrival and rapid evolution of the Nats as a turning point for Washington. When you lead the majors in wins in 2012 and the NL in wins in 2014, others study your methods. Usually, teams that lead a sport in wins over a three-year period, as the Nats have, end up being successful in the postseason, too. The Lerners, who own the Nats, and Ted Leonsis, who owns the Caps and Wiz, are close and share similar sports values. We may see some cross-pollination of best practices. All three are winners now.
Competition fosters excellence. The Nats’ long-range planning, selective high-dollar spending, attention to clubhouse character, plus a three-pronged emphasis on scouting, developing their own young players and advanced analytics, may become the new model in D.C. Currently, the Redskins would grade “D” or “F” in every one of those categories. They’ve been ranked beside the lowly Raiders as the NFL’s worst team in analytics.
Do things really even out in sports over many decades? Yes, far more often than not. The Redskins’ record for their entire history is 569-558-27. Look up the 16 original major league baseball teams in 1901 and three-quarters of them are within 2 percent of break even (.500) over the last 114 years.
Washington has had wonderful times in pro sports before — two long periods of them, in fact. I’ve seen the trophies, ridden in the Pennsylvania Avenue parades, watched victory rallies and interviewed the champions. Yes, in Washington. And there have also been long periods of moaning when optimism seemed like self-delusion and cynicism-as-self-defense boomed.
The wheel is turning. Make sure you own a drum or a horn so you can still make noise after you lose your voice. Because it’s about time. (Well, probably.)
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Interactive graphic: Compare two four-sport cities side by side