Our reputation was more than just a mild irritant. For 33 years, until the Nationals arrived in 2005, it hurt our image to be the nation’s largest metro area without a baseball team. Who would want to live, work or invest in a city shut out from the national pastime?
Worse, it fed the perception that we are “just a government town,” a soulless, one-dimensional place lacking the spark and liveliness of a thriving, multifaceted community. A World Series story in the New York Times rehashed this outdated stereotype, calling Washington an “isolating and serious place to live sometimes,” where “it takes a lot for Washingtonians to get excited about the same thing.”
The entire nation, or at least those who followed the playoffs, have now witnessed just how wrong that judgment is. As baseball writer Nick Stellini noted in my favorite tweet of the Series, Houston was the uptight side:
ASTROS: We have assembled the most terrifying pitching staff since the 90’s Braves. Our defense is stifling. Our offense is relentless.
NATS: Our entire stadium does the Baby Shark clap. We do Riverdance when we hit homers. Brian Dozier knows all the words to Calma.
In some ways, the Nats’ victory caps a 17-month winning streak for the Washington region, and not only in sports.
It began with the Capitals winning the Stanley Cup in June 2018, the first championship for a Washington team in one of the four major sports (NHL, NFL, NBA, MLB) in 26 years.
Then, a year ago, Northern Virginia beat out more than 230 other locations nationwide to win the biggest economic development prize in memory — 25,000 high-paying jobs at Amazon’s new second headquarters.
That showed the world something that people here have known for years: We are an innovative tech center, with a steadily expanding private sector, and not just leeches sucking on government contracts. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The Washington Mystics followed up with our first WNBA championship last month.
“It’s been a great year, with Amazon, the Mystics and now the Nats,” said Jim Dyke, a former Virginia education secretary, former chairman of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and Nats season ticket holder.
The Nats win “shows the region has a lot of things going for it, culturally and with things to do,” Dyke said. “It give people a chance to see the spirit that we have.”
When outsiders talk about Washingtonians uniting over sports, they invariably focus narrowly on the setting aside of differences over politics and ideology. Hey, both Brett M. Kavanaugh and Elena Kagan are here at the ballpark! George Will and Chris Matthews, too!
But the phenomenon is so much broader than that. Nats revelry brings together the city and its suburbs. It bridges economic and racial divides.
“It doesn’t matter what age or what race, sports brings so much joy to a city,” said Jimmy Lynn, an adjunct professor of sports marketing at Georgetown University.
For too many decades, baseball was not part of that experience here. I was one of those who suffered. Moving here at age 6, at the end of the Eisenhower administration, I quickly became a fan of the Washington Senators, only to see the team leave town — twice.
The owners blamed the city for what they said was lack of support. In reality, they were out for a buck and didn’t care enough about the community to field decent teams. (Rooting for the bottom-dwelling Senators in that era prepared me to be a Redskins fan today.)
Then followed 33 years of purgatory, when Major League Baseball refused to give us a team despite the region’s steady growth in population and economic muscle. Many of us rooted for the Baltimore Orioles, but with the nagging awareness that we were trespassing on others’ turf.
Finally, after a close-fought political battle in the District to win public funding for a new stadium, the Nationals arrived. Their principal owners — the Lerner family, who have constructed shopping centers all over the region — were committed to building a winning baseball team as well.
It was gratifying to see the family patriarch, Ted Lerner, age 94, accept the World Series trophy. He and Mark Lerner, his son and heir, have dreamed of owning a team here and winning it all since before the Senators left the second time in 1971.
“The local ownership makes a big difference, that they’re invested in this,” said Doug Duncan, a Nats fan who is a former Montgomery County executive and now heads Leadership Greater Washington.
“People know [the Lerners], because they grew up here. Part of the joy was for Ted Lerner to be here and see a championship,” Duncan said.
Although football still gets higher TV ratings, Duncan thinks the Redskins’ woeful state could allow the Nationals to eventually overtake them as the region’s top sports draw.
In any case, there’s no question anymore that the region can support a baseball team.
“The region has grown, it’s stronger economically, you have more people with an allegiance to baseball,” Dyke said. “We’ve proved we’re an excellent market, and it gets even better with this [World Series win].”
In honor of which, Dyke said, he’s started using “Baby Shark” as his telephone ringtone.