The year was 1924. Calvin Coolidge was president. The Roaring Twenties were in full swing. And the Washington Nationals (a.k.a. the Senators) won the World Series.
It’s been 95 years since the Nationals beat the New York Giants in the ’24 Fall Classic. And for most of the century that followed local fans endured season after season of dashed hopes and betrayals—not to mention some of the worst professional baseball ever played.
Sounds hard to believe, but there was a time when the deep state was a smoke-filled room and Washington, D.C. was a small town with small-town virtues and pastimes, one of which was rooting for a lost-cause baseball team.
“Washington—first in war, first in peace and last in the American League” was just a corny joke everywhere else, but in the nation’s capital, with each annual collapse of the hapless Nats, it was a curse.
Griffith Stadium, home of the “old” Senators (1901-1960, now the Minnesota Twins) and today the site of a hospital, was more like an intensive-care ward than a ballpark. The 10 years the “new” Senators (1961-1971, now the Texas Rangers) spent in RFK Stadium weren’t any better.
Then, in 2005, the Montreal Expos moved to D.C. and became the newest Nationals, who aren’t exactly new anymore. In fact, this season, at an average age of 31.1, the Nats were the oldest club in the majors. Some of the veteran players even call themselves “los viejos” (“the old guys” in Spanish).
“Everybody said that’s a negative,” remarked pitcher Max Scherezer, 36. “We just tried to flip that and made it a positive, because we know how good . . . we can still play. All of us, even the old guys.”
This year’s Nationals were particularly good at coming from behind in the late innings to beat opponents who were supposed to beat them. Most recently, the Houston Astros, until a few days ago regarded by all the experts as the best team in baseball. Sound familiar?
“Somebody should write a book about it,” said Nats’ outfielder Adam Eaton. Somebody probably will, but there’s already been a hit Broadway musical on the subject—”Damn Yankees“—in which a long-suffering Senators’ fan sells his soul to the Devil to help his hometown club defeat the hated New York Yankees.
During the 33 years Washington was without a team, there had to be many D.C. diehards willing to make the same trade for a franchise to call their own.
Instead, anyone wanting to see a major league game had to drive to Baltimore. Or, if you were really desperate, there was always The Washington Post, where uber-dweeb (more recently Trump-deranged) George Will regularly philosophized on the Chicago Cubs as if they played ball for Plato’s Republic.
Those long years with no baseball did something to Washington. Gradually the city became more and more detached from ordinary reality. Coincidence? Maybe. Still, that’s something the Senators in all their undisguised ineptitude never allowed. They made you face facts and when things went wrong, as they usually did, get over it and move on.
After the team’s departure, life inside the Beltway went from bad to worse. For six months a year, Washington was a virtual sports ghost town haunted by seven-figure lobbyists and crisis managers. Neighborhood ball fields made way for expensive condos, and boys with names like Seth and Josh grew up throwing like girls.
The truth is, by the time the Expos showed up, Washington had pretty much forgotten what a baseball team does.
The nation’s capital is no longer a small town. It’s the most powerful city in the most powerful country in the world, whose ever-increasing population of resident elites value their power and importance and don’t like it when either is threatened.
All of which makes the 2019 Nats seem like a throwback to Washington ball clubs of old—and, in a strange way, to old Washington. First came the 19 wins and 31 losses to start the season. Followed by a record-setting finish in a World Series won by a cheerful collection of veterans and hard-working young players—apparently not a single head case among them.
Nats’ star outfielder Juan Soto, 21, was asked after Game 7 in Houston, if he would be celebrating with his girlfriend. Soto, who lives with his parents, replied without the slightest hint of snark, “My girlfriend’s my mom.”
At the team’s victory parade over the weekend Washington suddenly seemed like the place it used to be. Nats’ owner and D.C. native Ted Lerner, 94, addressed the huge crowd gathered in the shadow of the Capitol Building.
“It’s not often that people look at Washington, D.C. and say those guys really love each other . . . This team—they really love each other. And I love them.”
What could be more all-American than a city celebrating after winning the World Series?
But the deep-blue anti-Trump capital, where Hillary Clinton got 91 percent of the vote in 2016, also showed why the rest of the country has a problem with Washington.
President Donald Trump, in the tradition of other chief executives, attended the fifth game of the Series played at Nationals Park. In a break with protocol, he was greeted by scattered boos. Some coming from the city’s elite in their thousand-dollar seats, the same establishment types Trump has pledged to run out of town.
Ballplayers, experts in reading crowd noise, most likely wouldn’t have noticed the booing. It’s no surprise the anti-Trump media would use it as evidence that the president disgraced the national pastime by just being there.
Three days later, the Series-winning Nats’ were invited to the White House.
Entertaining championship teams used to be guaranteed good PR for all parties. But ever since Trump took office, some players and coaches have used a presidential invitation as a way to score political points by turning it down. The Golden State Warriors, 2017-18 NBA champs, snubbed the White House and met instead with former President Barack Obama.
Last year, when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, nearly all of the African-American players boycotted the team’s visit to Washington.
When the Nats meet with President Trump on Monday, only one player, relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, has said he’s staying away for political reasons.
Just one no-show? That could be a record.