Take it from Teddy Roosevelt, the first time is always the best time.
There is no frame of reference, no postseason expectation outside the clubhouse. There is no 98-win team that came before and no 19-year-old’s rookie season to come after.
The first time is the best time because the romance and discovery phase between a town and its first good team will never feel newer, lighter — never hold the possibility and wonder of this ongoing fable of a baseball season in Washington.
Heck, Teddy will never again win his first presidential mascot race like he did here Wednesday afternoon, finally blowing by George, Tom and Abe. He was
0-525 before that victory, which is bad but still falls more than 100 losses short of the 640 games the Nationals had lost before this season.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it was pretty rough at times,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who joined the Nats during their first season in 2005 and became the face of the franchise the club always rolled out as their welcoming committee at introductory news conferences . “The first couple times I came out with the new guy’s jersey, it was great. After seven or eight guys and you’re still not going to the playoffs, it was kind of getting old. Real old. This makes up for all of it.”
And, really, isn’t that what the chanting and the euphoria was about in the clubhouse and ballpark Monday night, the releasing of so much pent-up angst from what came before — from losing 205 games in 2008 and 2009, from putting up with Dmitri Young, Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge and all the other reclamation projects Jim Bowden and Stan Kasten wanted to save?
Just two opening days ago, Kasten encouraged Philadelphia fans to make the trek to Nationals Park to help fill the seats. They did — 20,000 strong, booing the home team, seeing their Phillies decimate the Nationals, 11-1, before President Obama and a sold-out park whose fans were still searching for major league legitimacy.
But Mike Rizzo had taken charge. He built up scouting and the minor leagues, and he signed two wunderkinds in back-to-back seasons in Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. He filled in gaps with other kids and veterans — most of whom never experienced the losing and lethargy of the franchise’s past. Then Davey Johnson was roused from retirement, turning out to be as fiery and cocksure as he was in 1986.
The old lifer makes the kids believe. Makes the veterans realize, hey, why not? And on a Wednesday afternoon in October, the Phillies and their fans, the handful of them in the park anyhow, were sent packing for the fall.
“I think it was spring training, believe it or not,” said Adam LaRoche when asked in the clubhouse Wednesday morning when he thought this could be a special team. “I remember D-Ro [utilityman Mark DeRosa] looking around and saying, ‘Man, we won a World Series with San Fran. I’m looking around and I think this is a better team than we had over there. And we won the whole thing.’
“It was kind of the mentality of, you know, ‘Why not us?’ Somebody’s gotta to win it this year. Might as well be us. Then you start playing some games and you look up a month or two in the season, and you’ve got a great record, and it develops into, yeah, we are real good, this is a really good team, and that confidence grows.”
Joe Theismann, the Redskins’ Super Bowl-winning quarterback, was recently asked if he realized the magnitude of winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 1983. He said he didn’t because there were so many young players on the team without memories or expectations. “It’s one of those things where, you don’t know what you don’t know. So there’s no pressure. You just go out and do it and play.”
You ask Harper, who’s having a teenage rookie season not seen since Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle or Mel Ott, if he can identify.
“What pressure?” he says, matter-of-factly. “Coming into this year, all you want to do is play ball. Like you said, you’re young and you want to have fun.”
Of whether he believed they had a World Series-caliber team early, he added, “I have no doubt in my mind about it. We want to give a winner to this town and this city. That’s our goal every single day.”
It is Game 162 as I type this from the press box. A regular season ends, and for the first time in Nationals history, a postseason begins.
At some point romance will turn to reality, of course. Gio Gonzalez’s candor and antics won’t be as fresh, Jayson Werth’s surliness will be magnified during a slump, the words “salary arbitration” will re-enter the vernacular and all the uncomfortable details of keeping a great team together will get in the way of the fantasy.
Harper and Strasburg will be bona fide veterans at some point and all the players made out to be myths will go back to being just men, flawed as most of us.
But that’s for another season, another playoff run.
This is the first time, the best time, and nothing that came before or follows will ever have the same majesty again.
If it’s true you never get over your first crush, then Washington’s baseball fans might as well enjoy the infatuation period.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
More coverage of the Nationals and MLB:
Box score: Nationals 5, Phillies 1
Graphic: Teddy Roosevelt triumphs
Video: The story of the Nationals