On a glorious Sunday afternoon, 32,627 folks showed up at Nationals Park, where a celebration awaited. What played out was satisfying for the people who paid to attend, and then showed patience enough to stick around — a victory for the Washington Nationals, and then an odd-but-fun wait to watch on the big screen as the Atlanta Braves finished off the Miami Marlins, wrapping up Washington's fourth division title in the past six seasons.
See what you want here, really: A stadium that was more than three-quarters full, or one that was a nearly a quarter empty. Maybe how you describe it reveals part of your personality.
Either way, in the 13th season of the Nationals' existence — a point at which they are established as one of the most reliable winners in their sport — we have more than one Sunday in September from which to draw information. We have kids in the stands at Nationals Park who aren't jaded by a 33-year gap without baseball. We have scars from playoff losses, and that unmistakable mix of excitement-dread-optimism-fatalism as another October beckons. We have a franchise that is entrenched, and a fan base that is . . . what, exactly?
"This fan base has kind of grown up with us, which has been fun," Ryan Zimmerman said in the clubhouse Sunday. Zimmerman is authorized to speak on the subject, because he is the only uniformed member of the Nats who has been with the club since the RFK Stadium days.
The Nats' fan base, growing up: That's a nice narrative. There's truth in it, for sure, because you can walk around the city and see Nats hats on heads and Nats flags on houses, and there wasn't a lot of that in, say, 2006, when they were more curiosity than institution. And yet we know the club's own manager has lamented that the crowds aren't louder and larger.
(Now, the NFL season opened Sunday, and the Redskins drew 78,625 to FedEx Field to see their latest travesty, so that must have been a factor, right? I certainly thought so. But since the Nats became good in 2012, they have played at home on the same day as their football counterparts seven times, including a doubleheader. On four of those occasions, the Nats have exceeded their average for that season. On the other four, the crowds have been smaller than average. Goodbye, hour of research. I will never get you back.)
We know the Nationals have settled into a comfortable spot in a sports town that has its issues, what with all the people from elsewhere hauling their allegiances, and the baggage that comes with them, when they settle into your neighborhood. But are the Nats, in the minds of their fans, an ascendant franchise that will grow its core? Could a future Sunday — with important baseball at Nationals Park coinciding with football at FedEx Field, as it did this week — lead to more buzz at baseball?
The winning — consistent winning for the Nats, at this point — has almost deadened the senses. What's weirder: The losing that emanates from Ashburn gives the local football fans new reasons for anger and angst. The drumbeat to a National League East title doesn't seem to elicit as much emotion, particularly in a season in which the rest of the division was so dreadful. The futile football, that can lead to raw diatribes.
And so the Nats trudge forward, winning games and titles.
"We've played extremely good baseball for an extremely long period of time, and in a very short existence as a franchise," Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said over the weekend, when the division title was inevitable but not yet clinched. "I think that's often overlooked — specifically nationally. I think that we're at the point where our expectations are high, and I think that we should not take that for granted."
Indeed, division titles should be viewed as rarities, not regularities. You have to go back to 1995 to find four division titles for the Boston Red Sox, back to 2006 for the New York Yankees. The Nats are one of just four franchises — joining the Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Dodgers — to have four division titles this decade.
Yes, the clincher has felt inevitable for weeks, and it just happened to come Sunday, and it took both a Nats win and a Miami Marlins loss, so planning a celebration was tenuous. But for anyone who thinks such a celebration was a mere formality, consider Tampa Bay, Seattle, Milwaukee, Miami and Colorado — not one has won four division titles in its existence.
"This is a necessary step," outfielder Jayson Werth said above the fray.
But what happens when that step becomes expected, particularly in a town in which baseball has a hold on some, not most? Then people don't wake up on a perfect Sunday and say, "You know, my team could clinch a championship today. This could be special. I should go to the ballpark." Yes, 32,627 decided to come. The Nats' average attendance, over the first 71 home dates of the year: 31,204. So, a few more. But not wow-it's-electric-in-here more.
On attendance: It's just another data point, and it doesn't tell all, because there are so many forces at work: weather and opponent and pricing and circumstances in the standings. But we know enough about the Nationals and Washington's baseball fandom to say with some certainty what the attendance will be.
Since the Nats grew to be good — winning their first division title in 2012 — they have ranked first, 12th, second, 13th, second and second (for now this season) in victories. In that time, they have ranked 14th, 11th, 12th, 11th, 14th and this year sit 12th in attendance. They haven't averaged more than 32,745 or less than 30,010. The crowds are reliable, not spectacular. What could happen to make them pass the St. Louis Cardinals or Dodgers or Yankees? Nothing. But couldn't they blow by the Milwaukee Brewers or Colorado Rockies or Toronto Blue Jays, all of whom they trail in attendance this season?
A conclusion: The Nats have their fan base, at least until they advance in the playoffs or — if you can imagine — win a World Series. Like most MLB clubs, the team doesn't release data on its season-ticket base. Asked Monday, a club spokesperson said only that "2018 will be the highest year ever for ticket sales including season plans and total tickets sold."
But their core: Those are the people who were excited about a Sunday of possibility. Those are the people who stayed after the Nats beat the Philadelphia Phillies. Those are the people who watched the Atlanta Braves come back on the Marlins on the massive center field video board. And those are the people who stood and cheered when Atlanta walked off Miami, ending the division race, and embraced the Nationals players as they emerged to celebrate on the field.
There were, all told, a few thousand of those fans. On a Sunday filled with potential, they chose baseball. Some of them understood the infrequency with which such moments come about, and they were rewarded. That's all that really matters.