What Washington does best when it comes to baseball is wait, for entire generations and lifetimes. But one of those long waits has finally ended — the 49 years between Major League Baseball All-Star Games.
On Monday night, the Nationals’ Bryce Harper won the Home Run Derby on his last swing, topping the Chicago Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber as Nationals Park shook with roars. Just as the last word Monday was Harper’s, another Nationals hero, Max Scherzer, will throw the first pitch Tuesday night as the starter for the National League. Expect more roars.
If this seems radically uncharacteristic of the relationship between baseball and D.C., it is. But maybe it’s a precursor of better romance to come.
Once, D.C. was exiled from the sport for 33 seasons. Even in the best times, this city has seldom been at the center of MLB’s attention. Since ’01 — that’s 1901 — Washington has had only one team win a postseason series — 94 years ago.
But this summer, for a few days, the feeling is entirely different. Aside from the World Series, the All-Star Game is the one time when the entire sport assembles in one place to celebrate the game, but also to remake its acquaintance with the host city. Have you opened a new park? What’s changed here? Tell us about yourselves.
We never thought you’d ask.
Please forgive D.C. if we treat Tuesday night’s game as more than an exhibition, albeit with great players, but as a symbol of a city’s successful emergence, finally, as a central spot on MLB’s map.
Very good team, not very bad. Not “first in war, first in peace and last in the American League,” but first in the National League East four of the past six years. No, nothing more than that. Washington is the last town where fans will demand more than their due, because they’ve never been due anything at all.
And who will throw the first pitch of this All-Star Game? Scherzer, who has won the NL Cy Young Award the past two years, is the favorite again this year and is far along a Hall of Fame career arc.
“So many emotions when you know that you’re pitching in your home park. This is such an honor for the All-Star Game to be here,” he said. “In previous All-Star Games, seeing the hometown players and how the fans get behind them, it’s always been a special moment just watching from afar. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like to have the Nats fans here. . . . To go out there and start this thing — this is just a dream come true.”
The Nats will say, as they should, that their goal is a championship. But let’s be serious. No one knows whether the next World Series title in D.C. — to match that one in 1924 — will come along this year or in 50 or 100 years. Ask around. Unless you root for the Yankees, those things arrive when the fates allow.
What Washington does have is a sense that it truly belongs at the center of a five-day MLB celebration. Harper’s win in the Home Run Derby only cemented that notion.
To the current generation of Nats fans who have watched their team win 95 or more games four times in recent years, the idea that players as excellent as Scherzer and Harper, the 2015 NL MVP, would play for their team is normal.
That didn’t take long, did it? Only an eternity, plus a year.
Devoted fans of the Cubs, Boston Red Sox and others talk about their multigenerational droughts between world titles, about their devotion and patience as they make do with a few Hall of Famers to keep their summer nights energized until the next World Series arrives.
The last Hall of Famer to wear a Washington uniform in his prime was Harmon Killebrew in 1960. Before that, Early Wynn in 1948. That’s waiting. That’s patience. That’s devotion to baseball, although perhaps of a slightly odd, masochistic kind. We also appreciate Pudge Rodriguez’s 155-game cameo in 2010-11. Really, we do.
Now, all that second- or third-class baseball citizenship is dead. For a day, Washington should declare a baseball holiday and bask. And if it rains Tuesday night, just wait for the sun to come up again and do the chest-out, ear-to-ear-grin thing all over again. After such a wait, just enjoy the glow.
As stormy romances go, with records for longest-unrequited love that still ends in a happy marriage, the relationship between Washington and baseball would make a romance novelist blush.
Here’s the surprise, the kicker, almost the last laugh: Even though MLB came back to D.C. 20 years later than it might have and 10 years later than it should have, the result may have turned out better because of all that bitter delayed gratification. As a metropolitan area of more than 6 million, slightly more than Philadelphia, Washington was far more than ready when its time finally arrived.
“I grew up in South Boston, Virginia, near Danville,” 30-year-old NL reliever Jeremy Jeffress said Monday. “When my family came to Washington, it was to see the Mall or the monuments or go to Six Flags. No, no, growing up, I never thought there would be baseball in D.C. again. Now, to see this, the big venue with big crowds, the neighborhood around it, and now great teams have been coming through [year after year] with great players — no, never thought it’d happen.”
Now, anyone looking out across the Nationals Park outfield skyscape, including its 11 enormous, more-to-come cranes, understands why Washington sometimes feels like it has knocked its own socks off. Others may grade D.C. baseball as they will. Nationals Park is merely pretty, not classic. Parking is tight and getting tighter. But Washington knows what it wanted, what it planned and funded and built for. D.C. came close to getting it all.
For those who never saw the stadium site, and the entire Southeast Washington area, before the Expos moved to D.C. in 2005 and are curious as to what portion of what they see is new and connected in some way to the park project, the answer’s easy: everything.
Okay, nearly a mile away, the Navy Yards were already here. Maybe a couple of other things. But that entire view, plus all the parks and fountains, the two-mile, clean-smelling river walk to the Navy Yards and those 53 new restaurants — where once there were a couple of strip clubs and parking lots full of concrete mixers or piles of gravel — is all new and growing. And those “controversial” ballpark bonds are now due to be paid off 10 years early.
“Maybe this [All-Star Game] helps show everybody the sports city that D.C. really is,” said Nats reliever Sean Doolittle, who must miss the game because of a toe injury. “I didn’t know until I got here. Then the city was so alive for us in the playoffs last year. When the Caps won the Stanley Cup, everybody went crazy. D.C. is known for other things, but it really is a sport city, and the fans are incredibly passionate.”
“It’s really cool,” Doolittle added. If he’s a bit enthusiastic, forgive him. All-Star Games do that to players, towns and fans.
For this all-star affair, D.C.’s summer heat, of course, will be on hand. But if, for a moment, you feel comfortable, happy, almost “cool” — well, that’s probably just a baseball breeze, one that finally found Washington, brushing your neck.
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