That the moments exist at all is a testament to who the 2019 Washington Nationals are and what they represent — right now and generations into the future. Combine those frames from Game 7 of the World Series with all that preceded them — from the nadir of 19-31, to trailing in the eighth inning of the wild-card game, to trailing in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the division series, on and on — and these Nats left us with an instruction manual for how to respond when you’re down and out.
Stay in the fight. Finish the fight. They’re more than slogans now.
What these Nationals impacted, though, is beyond how we feel about this team and this October. What they did by winning is alter how we view the losing, so much losing, that came before that dogpile in the middle of the diamond in Houston.
Washington baseball history is complicated, defined as much by the sport’s absence as its presence. Anyone in his or her 40s who grew up here did so without a team in the District. There are tales of the Senators, of Walter Johnson and 1924, the only other World Series title this town has ever known. But between that championship and the time the Senators departed for the second time, in 1971, there were a total of 12 winning seasons. And then — poof — the sport vanished for 33 years.
When it returned, there were times it seemed like a cruel joke. The summer of 2005 provided fun by the bucketful, a taste of what the town had missed over the generations when baseball wasn’t here. But when it ended, and a 50-31 start had somehow led to a 31-50 finish, a decade or more of slapstick followed. It’s mostly funny — unless it’s the team in which you’re investing your time and your money and your emotions. Then it’s sad. Then it’s painful.
Think back on the place from which this franchise rose, the episodes it overcame. Chaos was woven into the team’s fabric because it was owned by Major League Baseball, because it spent the 2004 season splitting time between Montreal and Puerto Rico, because when the players showed up in the District, RFK Stadium was a barely suitable, if oddly welcoming, home.
The list of transgressions is long. Some were self-inflicted. Others were happenstance. There were moments funny and tender, silly and serious. With a title in tow, they all matter.
In 2006, the Nationals’ proud manager, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, wept at a postgame news conference because he had to remove his catcher, Matt LeCroy, in mid-inning because LeCroy could not throw out the Houston Astros, who were stealing bases at will. The next spring, the Nationals were so bereft of pitching — and so intent on losing to better position themselves in the draft and slowly rebuild — that they invited 36 pitchers to spring training, essentially putting an ad on Craigslist.
In 2006, they announced their presence in the international market by granting a Dominican shortstop a $1.4 million bonus. Nearly three years later, they discovered that prospect had lied about his age. The ensuing scandal cost General Manager Jim Bowden his job. Later that summer, two of their best players — Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn — took the field wearing jerseys that read “Natinals” across the front. In 2011, their manager, Jim Riggleman, was so upset that the club wouldn’t give him a contract extension that he quit in the middle of the season and reported directly to Caddies on Cordell in Bethesda, shots all around.
This stuff ran the gamut. Stephen Strasburg, now and forever, is the 2019 World Series MVP. But in any market outside Washington, he was previously known for his own team prohibiting him from pitching in the 2012 postseason so he could fully recuperate from elbow surgery. Thus began the October heartaches, a list that seemed as if it would never end.
File them away, because living through them made the title sweeter. Drew Storen, victimized by Pete Kozma and the St. Louis Cardinals’ refusal to swing at pitches an inch off the plate in 2012, then by Buster Posey in 2014. Max Scherzer, left in the game by Dusty Baker and ambushed by Joc Pederson in 2016, a division series loss that ended with Wilmer Difo at the plate against the great Clayton Kershaw, a fait accompli. The madness of the fifth inning of Game 5 against the Cubs in 2017, the worst inning of Matt Wieters’s career, another night when it all felt hopeless.
This is the Nationals’ history, regardless of whether Rendon took Houston right-hander Zack Greinke deep in Game 7 of the World Series to begin a comeback. It is the Nationals’ history, regardless of whether, two batters later, Kendrick followed with that clank off the pole, the sweetest sound in Washington’s baseball past.
Somehow, though, that history feels different when viewed through the prism only a championship can provide. It feels warmer, richer. A month ago, the mention of, say, Storen’s name could make an ardent Nats fan break out in hives. But is that true after the night of Oct. 30, 2019? Winning cures so much. Goats no longer have to be just goats. They can be meaningful contributors to the team’s story, a story that has more depth because of all the old wounds caused by all the old characters.
The 2019 Nationals changed all that. Their heroes are worthy. Juan Soto, for winning the wild-card game with a lashed single and an ensuing error, for homering off Kershaw and Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, for shuffling his feet in the batter’s box after merely taking a pitch. Rendon, for joining in homering off Kershaw in the division series, for altering Game 6 of the World Series with a two-run shot, for starting the Game 7 rally off Greinke, for so much more. Kendrick, for the 10th-inning grand slam that won the division series, for the homer off Astros reliever Will Harris that flipped the lead one last time in the World Series.
Strasburg, for appearing in six October games, all of them wins, the last into the ninth inning of Game 6. Scherzer, for flaring his nostrils and grinding through five innings of Game 7 without his best stuff. Zimmerman, for staying through the 100-loss seasons, for being the face of a franchise that didn’t always feel worth being the face of, for finally climbing to that stage, for finally hoisting that trophy.
All of them, for all of it. The 2019 Washington Nationals not only altered October for whoever came in their path — the Milwaukee Brewers, the Cardinals, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Astros. They altered the way a town feels about its team, about what came before them — and what’s possible after.
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