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Washington’s Annoying Consensus on the Nationals

Illustration by Garrett Morin Close

Illustration by Garrett Morin

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Illustration by Garrett Morin

If Paul Krugman is right -- and he has a Nobel Prize that says he is -- then we should all be suspicious of the so-called Washington consensus. Which may tell you all you need to know about the Beltway’s bipartisan obsession with the Washington Nationals.

Fans of a winning team are almost always annoying. But when they are also policy makers and newscasters, it’s somehow especially nauseating.

Every major television network boasts at least one deeply devoted Nats fan. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer tweeted a photograph from the champagne-soaked clubhouse after the team clinched Monday night. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are both fans, which might help explain why the 112th Congress was the least productive since World War II. (Too much hardball, as it were.) This being Washington, the team’s supporters go to great pains to point out that they are not flip-floppers -- that they’ve always been for the Nationals.

Cities love nothing more than to see their sports teams as reflections of themselves. (Countercultural San Francisco’s embrace of the 2010 Giants, led by the pot-smoking Tim Lincecum and the tattooed Brian Wilson, leaps immediately to mind.) So what does that make the Nationals? A team of wonks?

Photographer: Jonathan Ragle/Bloomberg

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Photographer: Jonathan Ragle/Bloomberg

As it happens, pitcher Stephen Strasburg has been studying U.S. history flash cards prepared for the team by columnist George Will. Outfielder Jayson Werth has grilled Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke (yes, he’s got “Natitude” too, as does Alan Greenspan) about quantitative easing.

National Model

Washington has apparently learned a thing or two from the Nats as well. Who could forget Reid repurposing rookie-of-the- year candidate Bryce Harper’s eloquent postgame quote -- “That’s a clown question, bro” -- in one of his news conferences? Just the other day, Bernanke cited the Nationals as a model for U.S. economic policy makers. They are successful now, he said, because they planned ahead and invested in their future during the team’s lean years.

That’s one theory. A more plausible reason for the Nationals’ success is that they were really bad for a few years, which put them in a position to draft Ryan Zimmerman, who hit .393 and slugged .581 at the University of Virginia, and a pair of no-brainers in Harper and Strasburg. Also, they traded for Gio Gonzalez, who has been great -- a little bit better, it’s fair to say, than Tommy Milone, the least valuable of the four highly rated prospects the Nats had to give up for him.

The team wasn’t exactly planning ahead when it let Strasburg start his innings-meter on opening day and allowed it to expire in mid-September, when they could easily have had him available for the postseason. Nor was it looking forward in 2010 when it signed Werth, then 31, to a seven-year, $126 million deal. He was absurdly overvalued even then, and the Nats will be paying him $21.57 million in 2017. When he is 38.

That’s all right: The owner of the Nationals, the real estate developer Ted Lerner, can afford it. He’s worth $4 billion. But wait. Why, then, did he balk when asked for a $29,500 deposit -- a deposit! -- to keep the Metro running when the team’s games run late? (A Washington-based company called LivingSocial Inc. eventually agreed to “sponsor” the added service.) For that matter, why did he leave it to the city’s taxpayers to foot the vast majority of the bill for the team’s $600 million stadium?

In a sense, you can’t blame Lerner for his unwillingness to assume the risk. After all, Washington lost its original baseball team, the Senators, in 1960 because of lack of fan support. (Also because the team’s charming owner, Calvin Griffith, wanted to be in a city -- Minneapolis, it turned out - - with fewer black people.)

Nationals’ Embarrassment

Not all that much has changed since then. In their historic season, the Nationals rank 14th in attendance in the major leagues, an improvement over 2011, when they were 20th, but pretty pathetic for a team with a new ballpark, two of the game’s most hyped young stars and a wealthy would-be fan base in Maryland and northern Virginia. The Nats weren’t even close to selling out for the big clincher on Monday night. This does not bode well for future years when the team might not be as successful on the field.

Or maybe I’m missing the point. In Washington, it’s not the size of the crowd that matters so much as whether the right people are in it.

Either way, here they are, baseball’s feel-good team -- even Washington transplants in long-term baseball relationships are confessing to secret crushes -- and, evidently, a model of smart, virtuous management. At this rate, Nationals manager Davey Johnson will soon be cast in bronze on the Mall. It will not be a particularly popular attraction to New York Mets fans, who had the misfortune of watching Johnson preside over their enormously talented teams of the late 1980s and produce just one championship.

For all of the Beltway spin, this season’s real baseball miracle is just up the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, at Camden Yards, where the Baltimore Orioles have built a playoff team out of a collection of has-beens and never-weres, including Miguel Gonzalez (who was pitching in Mexico last year), Chris Davis (who consistently failed to prove himself in Texas) and Nate McLouth (released by the Pirates in late May).

I don’t mean to begrudge the Nationals their success, bringing postseason baseball back to Washington for the first time since 1933. Just keep in mind that if you root for the Nats, you’ll be siding with Washington’s political and media elite.

So bring on the extended postseason. And somebody, anybody, please beat the Nationals.

(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to the New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” “The Challenge,” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Today’s highlights: the editors on pastors who cross the political line; Susan Antilla on educating individual investors; Caroline Baum on Ben Bernanke forgetting Milton Friedman’s lessons; Ezra Klein on the broad consensus behind narrow partisan fronts; Cass R. Sunstein on why regulators are listening to you; Enrique Krauze on hopes for a miracle in Venezuela.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Mahler at jmahler11@bloomberg.net or @jonathanmahler on Twitter.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.

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